The public is becoming more aware of the hazards of chemicals found in building materials and their impact on our indoor air quality. The out gassing of VOCs have been linked to: cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, fertility issues, autism and asthma.
In colder months it is critical to be aware of the materials we use during renovations, as our houses are closed tight to reduce energy consumption. Finishes such as paint, upholstery, flooring, cabinetry etc... can all contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's). The United States Environmental Protection Agency cautions us that "VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands." They are carbon compounds that evaporate at room temperature; most common ones are formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, xylene, benzene. They are found in many building products (insulation, carpet, ceiling tiles, wall coverings, plastics) and furniture (pressed wood, particle boards, plywood, fabrics and foams), and in paints, lacquers, coatings, sealants, stains, varnishes, paint strippers, adhesives and glues.
Other chemicals to know about are lead (in old paint), mercury (in old switches, thermostats), Polyvinyl Chloride, known as PVC's (in carpet backing, pipes and wiring, siding, window treatments, flooring, furniture and upholstery fabric), and fire retardants (in plastic and synthetic materials, foams and textiles; required for fire safety standards)
Most of these chemicals are odorless, and even if you're not allergic now, you may develop reactions some years later, as they tend to weaken our immune system.
Consumers need to read the labels, ask questions, and encourage safer and healthier building practices. Look for GREENGUARD certification which uses neutral, third party laboratories to test the amount of chemicals emitted from manufactured products.