August 1, 2019
Many common building materials and household products can release harmful chemicals, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), into your air. When VOCs build up in your home, they can trigger adverse health symptoms and increase your risk of developing serious illnesses. Because VOC pollution is invisible, however, these risks are dangerously easy to ignore. Below, we've outlined six common sources of indoor VOC pollution.
The chemicals in many common building materials can generate air pollution in your home and trigger a variety of health effects. Symptoms can include frequent headaches, dizziness, nausea, allergies, respiratory irritation, asthma attacks, and flu-like symptoms. The most ubiquitous sources of VOC pollution include:
Also referred to as “man-made wood,” “pressed wood,” or “manufactured wood,” composite wood is a hybrid product made from different types of wood and plastic. Binding these two elements together with a chemical adhesive creates a more durable product without sacrificing the natural appearance of wood that many homeowners covet. That said, the plastics and adhesives used to manufacture composite woods are made from chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, phenol, methylene chloride, glycol ethers, and BTEX substances — all of which can increase airborne pollution and cause adverse health effects. Composite wood is typically used in building materials such as hard-wood flooring, decking, wood molding and paneling, kitchen cabinets, walls, and shelving.
In addition to the chemicals found in composite wood products, many pressed woods are also coated with dyes and resins to improve the wood’s lifespan, hue, and shine. Chemical-based resins are used in common building materials such as plywood, fiberboard, wood paneling, linoleum, and vinyl flooring (to name a few). Furthermore, the adhesives used to install flooring, tiles, and cabinets can also increase airborne VOC levels.
Fiberglass, polyurethane foam, and polystyrene are all popular forms of building insulation that are commonly treated with fire-retardant chemicals. These materials can leak VOCs into your indoor air, especially when they're exposed to excessive heat due to warm outdoor temperatures or indoor heating systems.
Many furniture manufacturers use composite woods, dyes, and resins to create beautiful and durable home furnishings. In addition to the chemicals emitted by their composite wood and resin frames, the fabrics and padding used to upholster these products can also emit VOCs.
In 1975, California passed flammability standards known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), which required polyurethane foam and fabrics produced in state to be treated with flame-retardant chemicals (the most popular of which were pentabromodiphenyl ether and Octabromodiphenyl ether, also known as PBDEs). Although such standards were designed to improve product performance and protect the American public, research later revealed that this chemical could have potential health consequences when consumed or inhaled.
Because California is a center for textile and furniture production, flame-retardant foam and upholstery quickly spread throughout the greater United States. When health concerns about PBDEs came to light years later, the EPA officially banned production of these chemicals in 2004 and California amended TB117.
Since then, childhood exposure to flame-retardant chemicals has decreased significantly, but PBDEs are still present in many buildings and products produced prior to the early 2000s. Being aware of VOC levels in your home and being mindful about new renovations and purchases can help you maintain a healthier home environment.
Wall-to-wall carpeting has two main components: the rug fibers (the visible, top portion of the rug that you touch) and the rug backing (the hard, polyvinyl or latex side that gets tacked down during installation). Most VOC emissions stem from the carpet backing and the adhesive used to glue it in place. In addition to being made of plastic, vinyl, or rubber (common sources of formaldehyde, carbolic acid, and ethylbenzene pollution), the backing may also be coated with a antimicrobial chemical treatment that increases VOC pollution.
Although rug fibers aren't the primary source of chemical emissions, they can add to indoor air pollution. Synthetic rug fibers (i.e. polymer-based fibers such as nylon and polyester) treated with strong carpet dyes and stain-resistant chemicals can increase VOC levels in your home.
Memory foam mattresses may be the new gold-standard with regard to comfort and cost, but there’s a reason why these mattresses have a distinctive chemical smell right out of the box. Mattresses are notorious sources of VOC pollution for two obvious reasons: they're primarily made of foam and fabric.
Memory foam is typically made of polyurethane, a multi-purpose plastic polymer used in everything from spray-foam insulation to seat cushions, sealants, adhesives, and more. In addition to polyurethane pollution, the fabric used to encase mattresses is often treated with odor-blocking, antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, or flame-retardant chemicals.
If you’re in the market for a new mattress, don’t panic. Instead, look for a mattress with a low-VOC certification (such as GREENGUARD Gold or STANDARD 100 by OKEO-TEX) that uses primarily organic fabric to limit your VOC exposure. Before you take it for a test drive, make sure to give your new mattress time to off-gas in a well-ventilated environment.
The paint you use in your home can also impact airborne VOC levels. Some paints will only emit VOCs when they’re wet (i.e. during the painting and drying process), while others will continue to emit VOCs long after you've redecorated your space. If you’ve ever painted a room and become light-headed or dizzy from the smell, then you’ve suffered the immediate effects of high VOC exposure.
The chemicals you introduce into your home have a direct impact on your air quality. Although high-chemical cleaning products may give you an exceptional, streak-free shine, they can also skyrocket indoor VOC concentrations to dangerous levels.
Green cleaning products are typically strong enough for routine cleaning tasks and emit less VOCs, on average, than non-green alternatives. If you need to use a high-chemical product to tackle tough grime, make sure to properly ventilate your space, wear a mask, and take frequent fresh-air breaks.
The smell of a scented candle or air freshener might make you feel at home, but these products can also increase the amount of fine dust and chemical pollution you’re exposed to. To protect your health, opt for beeswax candles and create your own seasonally-inspired home fragrances from natural sources like pine branches, wildflowers, dried lavender, cinnamon sticks, or eucalyptus.
When it comes to air quality, knowledge is power. Although you can’t influence outdoor conditions, you can take steps to monitor your indoor air quality, identify sources of VOC pollution in your home, and protect your health.
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