What’s that smell?

Much like a new car, a freshly unwrapped piece of furniture or a new building each has its own distinct scent. This is not newness that you are smelling, it is the slow release of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from the products used to create and finish the end product. This phenomenon is also commonly referred to Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).

Regardless of the manufacturer’s claim, if VOCs were used in the manufacturing of the product, chemicals are off-gassed once unwrapped or in the case of paint – as it dries. A large part of the paint still currently sold has VOC added to keep the paint liquid while in the can and if you are smelling something – this could very well be why.

What is off-gassing? Off-gassing (also known as out-gassing) refers to the release of airborne particulates or chemicals—dubbed volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—from common household products.

Furniture and carpeting are also common culprits. These products use multiple materials from a variety of resources and unless a products lifecycle is carefully monitored to verify the chemical content, you are very likely to have some form of VOC in your home. Some of these pollutants can be toxic or irritating to people with respiratory diseases or chemical sensitivities. Which is why responsible architectural specifications usually require that new carpeting be “aired” for a specific period to permit off-gassing prior to installation.

A major chemical used in products from flu vaccines to adhesives is formaldehyde. While formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical (we even naturally produce formaldehyde in our own), in high concentrations it becomes a carcinogen. We only have to look to the recent issue with laminate flooring made overseas containing high levels of formaldehyde. Other substances such as butyl acetate which is a common solvent in lacquers and methylene chloride which is a paint thinner, can induce dizziness, headaches or worse.

Common products that can contain formaldehyde are as varied as cosmetics to building products. This also includes everyday products that we use such as electronics ( Yes, that includes your computer and keyboard). Printers can also release ozone, which in sufficient concentrations can irritate an individual’s respiratory system. Additional products also include:

  • Particleboard and Plywood
  • Household Cleaners
  • Dryer Sheets
  • Nail Polish Remover
  • Air Fresheners
  • Vinyl or Plastics

Household Cleaners! Sound scary? Unfortunately, we’re just getting started. More than 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into the environment in the last 50 years, and the majority of them haven’t been studied for their effects on people or animals. But that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from incorporating these chemicals into their production processes. Emissions from products peak within a couple of weeks of production and then slowly dissipate.

While the effects of off-gassing are still being studied, what we do know is that many of the chemicals can cause allergic reactions and other health problems—including congestion, coughing, skin irritation, asthma attacks, and fatigue, as well as leukemia, lymphomas, or cognitive decline. Health effects depend on the particular chemical(s) involved, the concentration of VOCs in the home or workplace, and how long and how often a person is exposed.

“Ask the manufacturer if they’ve used a low-VOC or no-VOC finish, but if they haven’t, that’s not necessarily a reason to write off that product. It could still be the right product for you – you just want to confirm that the off-gassing has been done before you bring the product into your home or facility.”

Moving Past VOCs

In addition to looking at label information, check to see if your furniture or any of its components are certified by GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), or SGS Group. These organizations offer seals of approval to sustainable and low- or no-emitting products, labels developed in part to serve customers who request lower emissions.

While this article has concentrated on VOCs, we should not overlook possibilities of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and discomfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. SBS is also used interchangeably with “building-related symptoms” which orients the name of the condition around patients rather than a “sick” building. Recent reports have identified that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be subject of complaints related to poor indoor air quality.

Sick building causes are frequently pinned down to flaws in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Other causes have been attributed to contaminants produced by outgassing of some types of building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOC), molds, improper exhaust ventilation of ozone(byproduct of some office machinery), light industrial chemicals used within, or lack of adequate fresh-air intake/air filtration (see Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value).

There are ways to help mitigate some of these issues:

  • Toxin-absorbing plants, such as sansevieria.
  • Replacement of water-stained ceiling tiles and carpeting.
  • Use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well-ventilated areas and use of these pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy.
  • Increasing the number of air exchanges; the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommend a minimum of 8.4 air exchanges per 24-hour period.
  • Proper and frequent maintenance of HVAC systems.
  • UV-C light in the HVAC plenum.
  • Installation of HVAC Air Cleaning systems or devices to remove VOC’s, bioeffluents (people odors) from HVAC systems conditioned air.
  • Regular vacuuming with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner to collect and retain 99.97% of particles down to and including 0.3 micrometers.
  • Increased ventilation rates that are above the minimum guidelines.

The construction and furnishings industry has made tremendous strides in the last 10 to 15 years to reduce the amount of VOCs. Particle board and adhesive producers are well aware that they’re being asked by their customers for lower-emitting products, and they’ve responded, so it’s not the issue today that it was even 10 years ago. There are a lot of different protocols in place requiring lower and lower levels of formaldehyde emissions.

On July 27—nearly a decade after the first FEMA-trailer scandal—the EPA issued its final regulation to safeguard the public from the chemical. The rule, which Congress directed the EPA to finalize, calls for domestic and imported composite wood products—including hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard—to be labeled as compliant with Title VI of the Toxic Substance Control Act and to be monitored by third-party certifiers. After the rule is published in the Federal Register—a process that could take several weeks—panel producers will have one year to comply, according to an agency spokesperson.

The EPA emission standards mirror rules set forth by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), legislation that went into effect in 2009. Prior to the California regulations, formaldehyde emissions from composite wood panels and finished goods were commonly as much as 20 times higher than the new standards.

The emission standards for the EPA rule are nearly identical to the CARB formaldehyde standards, primarily targeting the use of urea-¬formaldehyde resins (UF). The rules for hard¬wood plywood with both a veneer and a composite core would limit formaldehyde emissions to no more than 0.05 parts per million (ppm), while thin medium-density fiberboard could emit up to 0.13 ppm. As with the California standards, composite wood product producers, importers, and distributors, must also have their products tested regularly by a third-party monitor. The wood industry is also supportive of the new rule. According to the Engineered Wood Association, the new rule will ultimately prevent inconsistencies in state by state regulations.

Pressure from consumers will be the quickest route to a low-emission solution. This demand should precipitate more solutions to be developed quicker. If the industry and end buyers don’t find a low-VOC finish for the piece or group of furniture they need now. Consumers should support the companies that make a commitment to transition to a low-VOC finish. To learn more about this topic, check out the webinar The Drive to Healthier Buildings.

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