What are VOCs and why should you care in a Big Way!

photo credit: airoasis.com

photo credit: airoasis.com

The air we breathe is more polluted indoors than outdoors. Studies gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency show the indoor air quality (IAQ) inside some buildings are notably worse than the oxygen from some of our largest cities! What makes matters even worse is we spend 90% of our time indoors. As healthcare builders this really struck a chord. We realized the hardest hit could be the elderly and chronically ill.

At the heart of “indoor pollution” are VOCs.

What are VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compound

Definition. Any toxic carbon based (organic) substance that easily become vapors or gases–eg, solvents– paint thinners, lacquer thinner, degreasers, dry cleaning fluids.

Quite simply they are pollutants that come from chemicals. Many of these chemicals are readily used in our everyday lives.

Benjaman Franklin was right. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Carlton Building Services (that’s us) has put together a rudimentary list of some things to watch out for. Look it over. Think about it. We’re always evolving towards cleaner construction and a healthier life for ourselves and the healthcare remodeling sites we work on. Join the conversation. Reach out with any questions.

Short List of VOCs

Aerosol Sprays

Sure, today’s aerosol sprays are free of CFCs but they still emit VOCs into the air. VOCs are often mixed in with liquids to speed up the drying process and to increase cover.


When paint is newly applied, it can release VOCs into the air that can cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate!Paint thinner, lacquer thinner and oil based stains can all house VOCs. Even paints that say “zero” or “low VOCs” can still have a low level of these toxins as per industry standard. Look for a non-toxic paint.


That “new carpet” smell often comes from a chemical known as 4- phenylcyclohexene (4-PCH), which is used in the carpet backing. Limit exposure in those first days and open windows to minimize any potential issues.

Also, clean those carpets! Dust, dirt, pollen, and mold spores build-up – and can often trap other nasty things unless they’re taken care of.


Does your flooring installation include use of an adhesive? That can emit high levels of VOCs. Many times regulations exist to define the types of adhesives that can be used.

Caulks and Sealants

Materials like caulking, grouts, and mortars can include VOCs that permeate the indoor environment and degrade IAQ.

Ask your contractor and make an informed decision on the type of flooring, paint, and fixtures for your facility. Avoid those that might be an issue for people sensitive to air pollutants.

Engineered Wood

A common material used in all aspects from plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard can off-gas formaldehyde over a long period of time. Formaldehyde causes irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.


Solutions begin with awareness. Please be attentive to the IRQ of your environment. The best way to defend yourself?

  1. ·       Curb exposure to VOCs by minimizing the amount of products that contain them

  2. ·       Ventilate! Even opening a window can mitigate a good chunk of the danger

Our mission is to make your indoors more beautiful and less dangerous. Hopefully, write ups like this will raise awareness. That’s half the battle. Certainly, it’s motivated us to move towards cleaner construction practices for ourselves and our clients.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency | Molekule.com | Airoasis.com

JP Carlton

J.P. Carlton

J.P. Carlton is the founder of Carlton Building Services, a Hampton Roads-based construction company.