Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that, due to a high vapor pressure at room temperature, are emitted as gases from building materials. VOCs are present in thousands of materials and can be either natural or man-made. Many VOCs are completely innocuous, but there are some which have short- and long-term health effects[1] .

Source: CETCI Magazine

Issues Addressed

Due to the buildup of VOCs inside contemporary buildings (especially those without operable windows) synthetic VOCs are regulated by law. While scientists believe that most VOCs are not acutely toxic, they compound in the body and may cause major health disorders after many years of exposure. Unfortunately, it can be difficult and time-consuming to study these effects due to their slow development. Symptoms of VOC exposure can vary from the acute (headache, nausea) to the chronic and even fatal (cancer).

The solution to VOCs in our buildings is simply to limit or completely block all exposure to harmful off-gassing. Sweden was one the pioneers in this. In the early 1970s, they required new buildings to "air out" for 30 days before occupancy. They also introduced "trickle vents" which allow some fresh air inside an otherwise "tight" building[2] .

Trickle vent. Source: Titon Inc, US

Trickle vent. Source: Titon Inc, US

While the European Union has been considerably more progressive on this matter, The United States has been slow to come around. The EPA and OSHA strictly control VOCs in the workplace, however, they are unregulated in non-industrial settings. Even formaldehyde and benzene - known carcinogens - are legal. It is imperative that consumers, designers, and builders read the MSDS and instructions to limit undue exposure.

Fortunately, there are now many low- or no-VOC products that have been made available voluntarily. The US EPA has compiled an extensive database of suggested vendors and data. Other databases can found at Cradle-to-Cradle and Building Green.


VOC research and product certification is very much an ongoing project and is still in its infancy. This means in addition to research by the design team, a healthy dose of common sense design must be employed i.e. natural ventilation wherever possible, choose simple natural products over complex chemical ones, minimize exposure to these chemicals, etc.


In 2011, The NYC City Council proposed legislation that would have set strict limits on VOCs, but backed out due to pressure from the American Coatings Association[3] . This lack of legislation does not stop designers from making wise decisions, however, and there are dozens of projects in the City incorporating low- or no-VOC products.


  1. ^ "An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web.
  2. ^

    "Titon - Ventilation." Titon. Titon Inc, US, n.d. Web.
  3. ^

    "New York City Drops Controversial VOC Plan for Architectural Coatings." Durability + Design. Technology Publishing, Co., 15 Dec. 2011. Web.