woman holding paint brush

Health dangers of VOCs from household paints, paneling, carpeting... and even clothes from the dry cleaner.

I love the clean, inviting smell of a freshly painted room.

Unfortunately, that new paint smell may actually be a concoction of thousands of toxic compounds (known as VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds) that will be hanging around long after the paint has dried. In fact, while off-gassing peaks within the first few hours and weeks, some products release only half of their VOCs within the first year and continue emitting VOCs throughout their life.

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Paints are a leading cause for concern, but other contributors of potentially harmful, man-made VOCs (as opposed to natural VOCs produced by trees and vegetation) include:

  • spray paint, varnishes, paint thinners and paint strippers
  • preservative in cleaners and disinfectants
  • cosmetics, colognes and hair spray
  • nail polish and nail polish remover
  • pesticides
  • moth repellents
  • office supplies like correction fluid and carbonless copy paper
  • office equipment like photocopiers and laser printers
  • glues and adhesives
  • permanent markers
  • fuels
  • finish on paper products
  • fiberglass and foam insulation
  • wood preservatives
  • glues, finishes and waxes used in paneling, plywood and other pressed wood products
  • fire retardants
  • air freshener
  • automotive products
  • photo solutions
  • carpeting and vinyl flooring along with the adhesives used during their installation
  • furniture upholstery
  • tobacco smoke
  • improperly vented kerosene or gas space heaters, fireplaces or gas stoves
  • coating that gives fabrics their permanent press quality
  • ... and even storing or wearing clothes brought home from the dry-cleaner


To make matters worse, some of these products release toxic organic compounds into our household air even when simply stored in their sealed containers!

Combined, common, household products consistently raise indoor air pollution levels 2 to 10 times of what we're exposed to in even highly industrialized outdoor locations. And because many of us are indoors for the majority of our day, poor indoor air quality has been linked with a wide range of both health problems. Some ill effects of exposure to VOCs, such as irritation of the eyes, skin, nose or throat, headaches, nausea, fatigue or dizziness may subside quickly but others can be chronic and much more severe, including kidney and liver damage, impaired brain function and an increased risk of cancer.

Why are VOCs added to paints and other household products?

In the case of paints, most of the VOCs come from the thinners, which improve a paint's durability, make it easier to apply, speed up the drying process and extend the product's shelf-life. This is why oil-based paints tend to be higher in VOCs than latex (water-based) paints. The pigments (color) and binders, however, may also contain VOCs and other toxic chemicals.

How to reduce the potentially harmful effects of VOC and other indoor air pollutants

The potential health effects of VOC exposure depend on 1) the specific chemicals we are exposed to, 2) how much we breathe in, and 3) how long and how often we are exposed. Age, gender and overall health can also make a difference. In general, however, your risk can be minimized by following these steps:

  • Don't permit smoking indoors
  • Have plenty of fresh air ventilation (open windows and use window fans to pull air from indoors to outdoors) when painting or using powerful cleaning products. This may mean scheduling your painting projects for dry, warm periods (higher temperatures also speed up the off-gassing process).
  • If you are the one doing the painting, wear a dust mask when scraping or sanding old paint and wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth as soon as possible. Take frequent fresh-air breaks and leave the area while painting if you notice signs of overexposure, which include watering eyes, headache, dizziness, or breathing discomfort. Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions in terms of paint application, cleanup, storage and disposal. Keep paint containers covered as much as possible.
  • If you are painting movable objects, paint them outdoors.
  • Allow 2-3 days for newly painted rooms to "off-gas" with the windows opened before the rooms are reoccupied. Likewise, allow newly installed carpet, paneling, etc. adequate time to "air out."
  • Store paints, solvents, adhesives, fuel and pesticides in well ventilated or seldom-used areas such as the garage or a shed. Better yet, buy smaller amounts (only as much as you need) or share with a friend and properly discard what's left over at a hazardous materials collection site.
  • Unpack new furniture and allow it to air-out in a well-ventilated space before moving it into the home.
  • Use non-chemical methods of pest management to reduce your use of pesticides.
  • Rather than using household cleaners, use baking soda, borax or vinegar.
  • Allow dry-cleaned clothes to air-out outdoors before wearing or storing.
  • Don't allow automobiles to idle inside the garage.
  • Keep children and pets away from potentially toxic products.

A note about low-VOC, no-VOC or zero-VOC products: Some products marketed as environmentally-friendly, green-products or low- or no-VOCs may be misleading and actually contain VOCs or toxic chemical compounds. According to the EPA, no standards have been established for the testing and rating of products containing VOCs so measurements can vary widely. This is especially true of wet products, such as paints or adhesives that may be labeled as 'low-VOC' or 'zero VOC.' In addition, the reference to VOCs on label applies only to what's in the original can so be sure to ask about the effect of any additional pigments, mold inhibitors, bactericides or other additives (all of which may contain VOCs). These limitations, however, do not mean that safety concerns are beyond your control when purchasing paint, adhesives, wood products, or flooring. As much as possible, ask questions and specify formaldehyde-free, low- or no-VOC, low-toxic, solvent-free water-based paints, primers, wood stains and finishes, adhesives and sealants.

Sources (Accessed August 9, 2012):
http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html
http://www.epa.gov/iaq/iaqhouse.html
http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/sick_building_factsheet.pdf
http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/careforyourair.html
http://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/indoors/voc.htm
http://www.seattle.gov/housing/seagreen/TrainingMaterials/04-Air.pdf
http://healthvermont.gov/enviro/indoor_air/voc.aspx

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Michelle
February 17, 2015
I have an autistic child and had my 5 year old home built as green as possible. We also live an organic lifestyle. I had four pieces of wood furniture restained with water based stains and urethane. I trust the owner completely but the furniture still had an odor to it. How long do you think it will take to off gas in my open door garage. It's February and I live in Florida.
Melanie at BoiseHealth
March 26, 2015
Hi Michelle,

I am so sorry for my delay in responding to your comment/question.

You were smart, I believe, to insist that your furniture be refinished using water-based products, since these generally contain less VOCs than are in solvent-based products.

As for how long you may want to air-out the furniture in your open garage, I wouldn't know since so many factors come into play: the finishing products used, how much was applied, and how long ago. Also temperature, humidity and volume of air flow in the garage where your furniture has been stored (and then, in the room where your furniture will be placed) make a difference.

While the newly refinished furniture may be at the top of your radar right now, don't forget that VOCs are common in so many household products -- and VOCs can build up in a tightly sealed house -- that all of us may be wise to open windows on nice days to increase the cross-room, fresh-air ventilation.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to avoid exposure to all indoor air contaminants but minimizing the amounts and length of exposure is always smart.

I wish that I could offer you more specific information but I hope this helps. Please drop us a note if you've learned anything more on this topic.

I wish you all the best,
Melanie at BoiseHealth.com
Viktoriya
February 27, 2014
How long does upholstered furniture off-gas? We bought a new sofa, that is made of polyurethane foam and treated with chemical retardants. This was 6 months ago and I just now learned of the dangers. Is this sofa still a concern for us?
Melanie at BoiseHealth
February 27, 2014
Thank you for your question, Viktoriya. As the following post from the Vermont Dept. of Health explains, there are several factors that effect how much and for how long your item may be giving off VOCs:

http://healthvermont.gov/enviro/indoor_air/voc.aspx#seven

Have you contacted the manufacturer to see if they can offer any information on your particular sofa? Unfortunately, I am not aware of any reliable ways (at this time) to test your couch for VOCs so if you are still concerned, I suppose you could set the sofa in the garage or outdoors on a porch until your concern has subsided. But, since cool temperatures and low humidity levels slow the release of VOCs, setting the sofa outdoors in February in Idaho may not do much as far as degassing it. When the weather warms up, you may also want increase fresh air circulation in your home though opening windows and using fans. Please let me know if you learn anything from the manufacturer of your sofa.
Viktoriya
February 28, 2014
Hello Melanie, thank you for your response and suggestions. I decided that having this couch is not a risk I want to take. We have had polyurethane foam memory pillows since 2011. At that time, shortly after starting to use this pillow I started to have health problems. Now I believe it was because of the VOCs emitted from the pillow. I was very tired always, my allergies spiked. I ended up testing low on my thyroid hormones and later developed Hashimoto's. I was very healthy prior to that and was only 28 at the time. I never linked these problems, the low thyroid, Hashimoto's and allergies to the pillow I was using. I bought the same pillows for my daughters in 2012 and since then they have had many respiratory tract infections many times requiring antibiotics. I asked their doctor why they keep getting sick. He said: Allergies.

So we tossed the pillows once I read about the VOCs. I am selling the couch as well.

One last question. Mattresses are also full of fire retardants and contain that foam as well, ours is almost 10 years old. Should I get rid of it? I cannot afford an organic wool mattress, but can look for an alternative. Would it still emit VOCs. I also read a study that polyurethane foam acts as a sink and source of VOCs. So it can attract VOCs as well. Technically, it can forever emit them since it can attract them and when equilibrium is reached, it leaks them again. ... Thanks again!
Melanie at BoiseHealth
February 28, 2014
Hello again, Viktoriya and thanks for your reply. I'm very sorry to hear about your health issues. I can certainly empathize with your concern about exposure to any other potential dangers. I know there are companies that specialize in low VOC furniture. Here is a list from a site I visit occasionally:

http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/10-of-the-best-green-furniture-125345

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how affordable any of these brands are. You may want to check with some of the local furniture stores to discuss your concerns. Though I hate to encourage you to shop out-of-town but I've read that the big furniture chain, IKEA has taken an aggressive stance on lowering VOCs in all their products in all markets:

http://www.naturalstep.org/en/usa/ikea

IKEA's products are usually pretty affordable and I know they ship.
 
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