It smells artificial, yet slightly intoxicating, and comes from sources beyond a new car. Sometimes, for instance, it wafts from a new carpet, or emanates from a fresh coat of paint.
What exactly is it? That characteristic “new smell” called off-gassing, and it isn’t so innocuous. Here is all you need to know about what off-gassing is, how it occurs in our homes, and what we can do to keep our air cleaner.
Off-gassing doesn’t sound very healthy. What is it exactly?
Off-gassing occurs when new, manufactured items in our homes release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals. Consider the last few furniture items you purchased — maybe the leather couch had “new car smell” for a few weeks. That odor is a result of finishes, paint, glue, and other substances emitting chemical particles as they settle.
What other household products off-gas?
A lot. In terms of furnishings, common culprits include cabinets, tables, couches, and even mattresses, which often contain several synthetic materials. There’s also a lot of off-gassing going on behind our walls and under our floorboards: Carpeting, vinyl flooring, wall paint, particleboard, plywood, and insulation all emit myriad VOCs. Even the items we use to clean our homes, such as air fresheners and cleaning sprays, contain toxic substances that stick around in the air long after use.
What chemicals are ‘off-gassed’?
Thousands. Since World War Two, 80,000 new chemicals have been invented and placed in household items, though we have only studied the impact of a few. Formaldehyde, for instance, is a known carcinogen, but is still found in wood finishes, glues, insulation, and even hand soap. Polyurethane foam, a petroleum-based chemical found in mattresses, can cause respiratory difficulties and skin irritation.
For a more complete list of chemicals and the household products they’re in, check the Department of Health and Human Services database.
Is my furniture going to make me sick?
It isn’t that cut and dry. The health effects of VOC exposure varies depending on the person, the chemical, and its concentration. Sometimes, off-gassing manifests as temporary dizziness after the use of cleaning products, but other times, you might feel nothing. In the long-term, however, doctors are concerned about continued exposure to off-gassing. So far, chemical contaminants have been linked to 180 diseases.
Does this last forever? What if I can’t smell it?
Chemical off-gas at different rates, but manufactured goods usually undergo their most noxious (and smelly) off-gassing for about a month after they’re produced. Still, some chemicals can emit VOCs for years. Carpeting, in particular, can off-gas for up to five years. And certain VOCs, like Phthalates, are odorless, and so may go undetected.
What can I do to make sure I don’t buy products that emit VOCs?
Thanks to increased consumer safety advocacy over the past two decades, there are now numerous third-party certifications for household goods. For furniture, the GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and SGS Group certifications denote goods that are low to no-emission. Solid wood generally contains fewer VOCs than particleboard or plywood. If you want to purchase a mattress, look for one that is made of organic cotton, chemical-free wool, or natural latex.
Alternatively, buying used furniture is also a strong vanguard against harmful VOCs, as most second-hand goods have already undergone their worst off-gassing.
What can I do to decrease off-gassing on the items I’ve already purchased?
No need to throw it out, but you probably shouldn’t let items sit in your house as they off-gas. Instead, leave them in a garage to air out for a few weeks. If that isn’t a possibility, many furniture stores will allow you to ventilate your purchases on-site before taking them home. If you’re painting, do it in the spring when you can open the windows.
Because there can be dozens of items in your home at various stages of off-gassing, it’s also a good idea to use an air purifier to filter the VOCs out of the air.
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