a magnifying glass with the words Volatile Organic Compounds in the middle

Clean water is vital for our health, but its quality can be compromised by unseen contaminants. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of carbon-based chemicals that can vaporize into the air and water. While often associated with indoor air pollution, VOCs also infiltrate water sources from industrial, natural, and human-made activities.

VOCs in water are often colorless and odorless, making them difficult to detect. Explore the sources, health risks, detection methods, and solutions related to VOC contamination in water. We'll also cover regulatory standards and innovative approaches to address this issue, aiming to provide you with the information needed to make informed decisions about your water consumption and safety.

Understanding VOCs in Water

Sources of VOCs in Water

VOCs in water can originate from a range of activities, industries, and substances. Some common sources include:

  • Industrial Processes: Factories, refineries, and manufacturing facilities release VOCs into the air, which can subsequently dissolve into water sources through rainfall or direct contact.

  • Vehicle Emissions: Exhaust from vehicles contains VOCs that can enter the atmosphere and eventually be deposited into water bodies.

  • Agricultural Activities: Pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture can contain VOCs that leach into the soil and groundwater.

  • Landfills and Waste Sites: Organic waste in landfills can produce VOCs as it breaks down, and these compounds can seep into groundwater.

  • Natural Degradation: Natural processes, such as the breakdown of plant material, can release VOCs into the environment.

The presence of VOCs in water raises concerns due to their potential health effects and the challenges associated with detecting them. While the impacts of some VOCs on human health are well understood, the combination of various VOCs and their potential synergistic effects add complexity to assessing their risks.

Health Risks of VOCs in Drinking Water

Potential Health Effects

Exposure to VOCs in drinking water can lead to a range of health effects, depending on the specific compounds and their concentrations. Some VOCs are known to have immediate and long-term health risks:

a woman being dizzy while under the sun
  • Short-Term Effects: Short-term exposure to high levels of certain VOCs can result in symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

  • Long-Term Effects: Prolonged consumption of water containing VOCs may lead to more serious health issues. Some VOCs are associated with organ damage, central nervous system disorders, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

Detection and Measurement of VOCs in Water

Common Detection Methods

Several techniques are employed to detect and measure VOCs in water: 

Gas Chromatography Analyzer in the laboratory
  1. Gas Chromatography (GC): GC is a widely used analytical method that separates and identifies different compounds in a sample. It is effective for detecting a wide range of VOCs in water. 

  2. Mass Spectrometry (MS): MS is often coupled with GC to enhance the identification of specific VOCs by measuring their molecular masses. This technique is highly sensitive and can provide precise measurements.

  3. Solid-Phase Microextraction (SPME): SPME is a non-invasive method that involves extracting VOCs from water using specialized fibers. It is particularly useful for analyzing trace levels of VOCs.

Regulatory Standards for VOCs in Drinking Water

To ensure the safety and quality of drinking water, regulatory agencies around the world establish standards and guidelines for acceptable levels of contaminants, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These standards are based on extensive research and risk assessments to protect public health.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Standards

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets regulatory standards for VOCs in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA has established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for specific VOCs that are commonly found in water sources. MCLs represent the maximum allowable concentration of a particular contaminant in drinking water.

For example, the MCL for trichloroethylene (TCE), a VOC often used as an industrial solvent, is set at 0.005 milligrams per liter (mg/L), or 5 parts per billion (ppb). This stringent limit reflects the potential health risks associated with long-term exposure to TCE.

Global Standards and Guidelines

Internationally, organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) provide guidelines for the acceptable levels of contaminants in drinking water. These guidelines are used by countries as a reference to develop their own national standards. The goal is to ensure that people everywhere have access to safe and clean drinking water.

Addressing VOC Contamination in Water

Effective treatment of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) contamination in water is essential to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water supplies. Various treatment technologies and approaches are employed to remove or reduce VOCs from water sources.

Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) Filtration

One of the most common methods for removing VOCs from water is through granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration. GAC is a porous material that adsorbs organic compounds, including VOCs, as water passes through it. The large surface area of GAC allows it to capture a wide range of contaminants effectively.


Aeration involves exposing water to air, allowing VOCs to evaporate and separate from the water. As VOCs have low boiling points, they readily vaporize into the air when exposed. Aeration is particularly effective for treating water with high VOC concentrations.

Advanced Oxidation Processes (AOPs)

Advanced oxidation processes use chemical reactions to break down VOCs into less harmful substances. This is achieved by introducing powerful oxidizing agents like ozone or hydrogen peroxide into the water. AOPs are effective in treating a variety of organic contaminants, including VOCs.

Read more on The Top 5 Water Contaminants and What You Can Do About Them.


Industrial best practices, proper waste management, and sustainable agriculture can prevent VOC contamination. VOCs in water has highlighted the complexity of the issue and the importance of safeguarding our water sources. By raising awareness, adhering to regulations, employing effective treatment methods, and embracing emerging technologies, we can contribute to a future where clean and safe drinking water remains a fundamental right.

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