Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), commonly found in building materials and finishes, are chemicals with a high vapor pressure at room temperature. VOCs are emitted as gases and vapors, some of which may have short or long-term adverse health effects to homeowners and building occupants exposed to them.

VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea at low levels of exposure for short periods of time. Exposure to high concentrations of VOCs over a long period of time may cause asthma or cancers.

VOCs are emitted from a wide variety of household products, including cigarette smoke, paints and lacquers, dry-cleaning chemicals, car exhaust, adhesives, adhesive removers, appliances such as copiers or laminators, ceiling tiles, cleaning products, pest control products, furniture polishes, personal care products including nail polish, colognes, deodorants, hair spray, air fresheners, carpet, upholstered furniture, and can even arise from activities such as cooking.

While a complete avoidance of VOCs verges on impossible, it is relatively easy to prevent high exposures. Buy low or no-VOC emission products whenever possible. This is especially easy with paints, as they are clearly labeled if they contain no VOCs. Use all products which release VOCs in well-ventilated areas. A simple rule to live by is that if you can smell the product, you are likely exposing yourself to VOCs. Open a window or turn on an exhaust fan. Finally, get rid of products that contain high levels of VOCs. For example, do not keep a large stockpile of paints or cleaning supplies in your home. Utilize a separate shed or closed-off garage for storage of these products and never store them near or in the same closet as your air conditioning system.