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Environmental Health - Toxic Substances



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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – “VOCs are ground-water contaminants of concern because of very large environmental releases, human toxicity, and a tendency for some compounds to persist in and migrate with ground-water to drinking-water supply well … In general, VOCs have high vapor pressures, low-to-medium water solubilities, and low molecular weights. Some VOCs may occur naturally in the environment, other compounds occur only as a result of manmade activities, and some compounds have both origins.” - Zogorski and others, 2006

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – “Volatile organic compounds released into the atmosphere by anthropogenic and natural emissions which are important because of their involvement in photochemical pollution.” - Lincoln and others, 1998

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – “Hydrocarbon compounds that have low boiling points, usually less than 100ºC, and therefore evaporate readily. Some are gases at room temperature. Propane, benzene, and other components of gasoline are all volatile organic compounds.” - Art, 1993

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – “VOCs are organic compounds that can be isolated from the water phase of a sample by purging the water sample with inert gas, such as helium, and, subsequently, analyzed by gas chromatography. Many VOCs are human-made chemicals that are used and produced in the manufacture of paints, adhesives, petroleum products, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants. They often are compounds of fuels, solvents, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners, and dry-cleaning agents commonly used in urban settings. VOC contamination of drinking water supplies is a human-health concern because many are toxic and are known or suspected human carcinogens.” - U.S. Geological Survey, 2005

Related Definitions

BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene)/strong>

MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether)

USGS Information on VOCs

USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program Research on VOCs

USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program Remediation of VOC-Related Activities

Hydrocarbons and Fuel Oxygenates Activities

Chlorinated Solvent Activities

Related Science Feature Articles

Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)

Chlorinated Solvents

More Information on VOCs


Art, H.W., 1993, Volatile organic compounds, in Art, H.W., ed., A dictionary of ecology and environmental science: New York, New York, Henry Holt and Company, p. 581.

Lincoln, R., Boxshall, G., and Clark, P., 1998, VOC, in A Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics (2 ed.): Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, p. 314.

U.S. Geological Survey, 2005, Water resources data--Definition of terms: U.S. Geological Survey, access date May 28, 2010.

Zogorski, J.S., Carter, J.M., Ivahnenko, T., Lapham, W.W., Moran, M.J., Rowe, B.L., Squillace, P.J., and Toccalino, P.L., 2006, The quality of our nation's waters--Volatile organic compounds in the nation's ground water and drinking-water supply wells: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1292, 101 p.


Disclaimer: The definitions on this page are provided for information purposes only, and do not indicate endorment by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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