Ask PeaBohDee: What exactly is a VOC?

Q: I’ve heard people talking about Low VOC paint and how it’s better for us. And now I’m noticing people talking about VOC’s in lots of building and design products. What exactly is a VOC? Is it just an unpleasant smell?

A: According to Residential Design & Build magazine ( the acronym, VOC (volatile organic compound) is widely used in building today, and yet few people know what it means. Here’s the scoop: until new engineering brought water-based and more natural goods to the market, products that cure or dry- like caulks, sealants, adhesives, and paints- were made with chemical solvents like zylene or benzene which are VOC’s. As these chemicals dry they let off noxious fumes that can enter our lungs and cause throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and even damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Known as off-gasing, these dangerous fumes can linger for days and even months. Remember how we used to revel in that “new paint” smell? Those were VOC’s stinking up the place!

What does that mean for you? When you purchase building products (such as insulation, carpet, caulk, etc.) or cabinets and furniture (made with lacquer finishes, MDF, etc.) you could be inviting harmful chemicals into your home or building. For healthier options, look for water-based and low or no VOC paints and products, and seek out natural materials wherever possible. Letting retailers know that you prefer safer merchandise will drive manufacturers to improve their products and avoid harmful chemicals.

Ask PeaBohDee is a regularly occuring Q/A column. Have a green design question? Leave us a comment and we may answer your question next!

About Shannon Kaye

Owner of Shannon Kaye - Making Room For More


  1. You made a few good points there. I did a search on the subject and found most folks will agree with your blog.

  2. These topics are so cnofusnig but this helped me get the job done.

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