The process called off-gassing is the airborne release of chemicals (VOCs) from items in your house. For example, that ‘new carpet smell’ is actually the carpet materials slowly releasing VOCs into the air. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) can be many kinds of chemicals used in a variety of household items, whether solid or liquid materials. This means that off-gassing is a hazard that can directly affect you in your home, workplace, and even vehicle.
What Chemicals Usually Off-Gas?
To name a few:
Formaldehyde: This vapor is a carcinogen commonly found in glues, wrinkle-resistant fabrics, insulation, laundry detergents, and even some soaps.
Toluene: It’s a colorless, water-insoluble liquid that you’ll usually find in spray paints, multipurpose cleaning solutions, bathmats, some colored pens and markers, and floor polish.
Phthalates: These mean chemicals are found in a wide array of household items such as nail polish, cosmetics, food packaging, shower curtains, raincoats, body care products, etc.
Polyurethane: Typically, you’ll find this chemical in the form of a foam or sponge, but it’s also used in upholstery and furniture, carpet underlay, the lining of bras, and hard plastics.
Chloroform: Although chloroform can be naturally emitted from seaweed, for example, it’s also synthetically produced. It’s a colorless, sweet-smelling dense liquid that is found in Teflon, pesticides, solvents, and fire extinguishers. It has a long history of various uses from criminal to medical, but people have realized its dangers in household use.
Acetone: This colorless liquid is used in nail polish remover, varnish, furniture polishes, wall paints, and dishwashing liquids.
Ammonia: It’s a colorless gas, but you’ll notice ammonia by its distinct, pungent smell. It’s found in window, drain, and oven cleaners, floor polishing waxes and is often liquefied to be used to fertilize crops.
Chemical flame retardants: You are most often exposed to these diverse groups of chemicals through things like baby strollers, carpets, food packaging, toys, cables and wires, and car seats.
Benzene: This colorless, sweet-smelling chemical is used in plastics, resins, dyes, pesticides, glues, gasoline, and tobacco smoke.
Ethanol: It’s a clear, colorless, natural byproduct of plant fermentation. It’s commonly used in cosmetics and beauty products, lotions, hairsprays, hand sanitizers, fuel, food additives, and it can even be used as the base of vanilla extract.
Methylene chloride: This is considered a carcinogen. It’s used in paint strippers and as a food additive to process spices or create hops extract for beer. It’s also used to remove caffeine from unroasted coffee beans and tea.
Perchloroethylene: It’s a colorless, nonflammable liquid that’s found in dry-cleaning solutions, solvents, printing ink, glues, and water repellents.
There are many more chemicals to add to this list, but it’s already enough to make you question your own home’s level of exposure.
How do volatile organic compounds affect your health?
After spending time around VOCs, whether they were odorless or not, you may start to notice symptoms within an hour. You may experience temporary dizziness, nausea, vision disturbances, headaches, coughing, and irritations to your eyes, nose, skin, etc.
But, these are minor disturbances. The long-lasting effects of continual exposure to off-gassing can be much more severe. The effects are still being studied, but we do already know that off-gassing can cause the following and more:
Allergic reactions, including eye and skin irritation
Hormone and endocrine disruption
The severity of the health effects that you may experience depend on these factors:
The particular chemical that you were exposed to. Some are more toxic than others.
The concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in your home.
How long you were exposed to those VOCs
How often you were exposed to them
How can I tell if something is off-gassing?
If you’re the average homeowner, you probably don’t have all the fancy gadgets and equipment for testing your own indoor air quality. These tests can be expensive and difficult to do in a home setting instead of a scientific lab. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to try to find out the level of VOCs in your home.
To be able to know your indoor air quality, you need to know a little bit more about the potential off-gassing products in your home. Some products take only a few minutes or hours to off-gas. For example, air fresheners, nail polish remover and perfumes tend to off-gas quickly. But other products can off-gas for several years.
This is especially a problem in building materials, carpets, wall paint, and new furniture, especially if it’s made from particleboard or cheap plywood. You can’t see chemicals off-gassing and sometimes you also can’t smell them. Some obvious smells help you to identify the culprit, off-gassing products in your home.
That new carpet, new polyurethane foam mattress, or even a new laptop can have a very distinct smell that’s indicative of off-gassing. However, some VOCs are odorless. What then? How can you tell if products in your house are off-gassing? Here are a few ways:
Indoor air quality monitors, such as formaldehyde test kits. You take a sample of your indoor air and send it away for testing and results. It’s that easy. The company you send it to can then advise you on how to improve your indoor air quality, if necessary.
Specialized air quality companies can come to your home to test the indoor air quality directly.
If someone in your home is experiencing health problems or heightened allergy symptoms, it may be an indication of a greater VOC concentration in the air.
How long does off-gassing last and can I speed it up?
As I mentioned previously, some products only off-gas for a couple of hours, while other chemicals may off-gas for years. Many harmful chemicals off-gas most intensely in the first month after manufacturing. Here are some ways to speed up the process after you bring the new product home:
Cross-ventilation will help to clean the air if you must bring the product inside immediately. If you can, open windows and doors to allow the air to naturally flow and bring fresh air in while flushing out the VOCs. Otherwise, you can use an HVAC system or simply a fan. This speeds up the dangerous period of off-gassing because you will have ventilation during the most noxious emission period.
Trap the VOCs by dusting and vacuuming frequently. They tend to land on surfaces and be part of the dust. They can also seep into your walls. So, if you’ve brought a new product into your house while it’s still off-gassing, do some extra dusting and vacuuming to keep those VOCs off of your other items.
Off-gassing rates rise with heat. The higher the temperature, the quicker a product off-gasses. So, if you want to speed up the off-gassing rate, turn on a heater in the room and leave it for a while. Or buy your product in the middle of summer!
What are the off-gassing sources in your home?
Because there are so many possible sources of exposure in your home, tracking down the exact source can be difficult. To narrow it down, here are a few of the major categories of potential off-gassing sources in your home:
Household cleaners: It’s not a surprise to see this on the list because people are becoming more aware of the toxic ‘ingredients list’ in their household cleaners, including toilet bowl cleaners, glass cleaners, air fresheners and cleaning sprays. Despite manufacturers knowing the dangers of the chemical contaminants in their products, these products are still on the market. So, it’s up to you to eliminate this off-gassing source from your home by using non-toxic cleaning products instead. There are many amazing, high-quality alternatives to the harmful, conventional ones.
Fabrics: Most fabrics are either made of natural materials like wool or cotton or are synthetically produced. Both kinds pose a potential off-gassing risk. When dealing with natural materials like wool or cotton, unless your fabric is certified organic, you may still come into contact with industrial chemicals. Most conventional wool comes from sheep who were dipped in chemicals to protect from pests and diseases. And then, to be produced into fabric, that wool may be chemically treated in the factory with more chemicals, such as chemical flame retardants. Synthetic fabrics pose high risks of off-gassing because of many reasons like their composition, dyes, their exposure to chemicals in a factory, and also extra treatments such as wrinkle resistance. Fabric can pose a problem of off-gassing in your curtains, the upholstery in your furniture, your clothes, and even your bedding.
Insulation: This is often an “out of sight, out of mind” problem area in homes. The off-gassing can be severe depending on the type of insulation in your home, but the odds are that whatever insulation you have, you’re experiencing some level of off-gassing. If you need to install new insulation, be aware of the long-lasting effects it can have on your health if done incorrectly.
Paint: Conventional paint is notorious for noxious VOCs. Paint fumes are most potent in the first 48 hours after application. But the VOCs keep off-gassing long after that. Most off-gassing stops after a year, but you can still experience off-gassing from your walls or painted decor for several years. This depends on your home’s ventilation and construction regarding energy efficiency. The more energy-efficient your home is, the slower your off-gassing will dissipate. You need good ventilation and airflow to rid yourself of those VOCs quicker. If you’re looking for a new shade for your living room, you can avoid the whole mess of risky conventional paints because there are beautiful, no-VOC alternatives available.
Food: Additives, preservatives, packaging, and production all create scenarios for your food to be contaminated with VOCs. While it may not off-gas thanks to its quick consumption, your food can be a way that you are exposed to VOCs. This is why organic, fresh produce that’s been responsibly sourced is so important. You never know just how many chemicals your pre-packaged, factory-produced food may have come in contact with before reaching your plate. Some foods even require chemicals to be produced, whether that’s in colorants, flavorings, preservatives, additives, etc.
Carpets: Wall-to-wall carpeting is in many workplaces and homes. It’s been shown to be the cause of many health issues. But even a throw rug or area rug can be problematic. They are often backed with a synthetic material that is laden with VOCs. The glue used to adhere to this backing may have more chemicals. Then, the very material of the lovely pattern may be synthetic and treated with flame retardants. In other words, they are a major culprit in the world of off-gassing. Fortunately, you can buy a natural fiber carpet that requires no toxic chemicals in its production and yet allows you to still add that charm and color to your home.
Body care products: There is a shocking number of off-gassing VOCs in body care products. This category includes things like deodorant, toothpaste, hair care, lotions, waxing pastes, cosmetics, and so forth. The list of ingredients on the back of your bottle of sweet-smelling lotion may bring many nasty surprises. The off-gassing risk is that the fragrances continue to permeate your nasal passages and often affect your eyes too. Because body care products come in direct contact with your skin, you need to ensure that you are only using products with safe, non-toxic ingredients that will not pose the risk of off-gassing or causing skin irritations.
Furniture: The upholstery has already been mentioned as a potential off-gassing source. But the very structure of your furniture itself may be hazardous. Avoid furniture made of particleboard (MDF) and plywood, they are two common materials that are known to cause issues. They are often made with formaldehyde resin which is known to off-gas for up to two years. Furniture is spatially a large part of any home and so it can be a large source of off-gassing, This is why non-toxic furniture is an essential item to have in your home. There are more and more furniture stores that offer solid wood furniture with non toxic finishes, as well as non toxic couches with organic cotton covers and natural latex fill.
Bedding and mattresses: Once you have eliminated your toxic bed frame and replaced it with a non-toxic one, you need to turn your attention to what’s on top of it. Your new memory foam mattress can be a source of VOCs. Likewise, as aforementioned under the “fabric” category, your bedding could also be an off-gassing source. To avoid the risks, you can invest in one of the many luxurious organic mattresses available. There’s also organic bedding, from pillows to sheets and blankets to complete your new organic, toxin-free bedroom setup.
These categories hopefully give you the stepping stones you need to slowly start reducing the VOC concentration in your home. You can use the list to identify some of the main sources of VOCs in your own home.
How to indoor air quality?
Let it air out. This isn’t always possible, especially with things like mattresses and couches. But when you can, try to leave the product in a well-ventilated space like a garage or outdoors for as long as possible before bringing it indoors.
Open your windows and doors. Ventilation is key when it comes to reducing the VOC concentration in your home. If your outdoor air quality is poor, for instance, if you live in a polluted area, then skip this idea as you might just bring more problems than you started with! Instead try the next idea, an air purifier.
Air purifiers are a fantastic way to filter the air indoors. They can be affordable, portable, and some even have a built-in filtration measuring system to gauge the purity of your air and calibrate the filters to match.
Remove the source of harmful chemicals. This may seem obvious, but it can be tempting to buy that enormous “value” bottle of solvent even if you only need a small amount. But, when you store the extra leftover chemicals, they are busy off gassing in your garage, under your sink, etc. Try to only buy what you will use so you can remove the source when you’re done with your project.
You can’t always avoid using high-VOC products. So if you must use them, try to use them outside, or in a very well-ventilated space.
Detoxifying plants are a win-win. They are pretty as decor but also function as nature’s air purifiers. The more plants, the better chance they have of reducing the VOC concentration in your home. There are many to choose from so you can pick one that suits your taste. For instance, Bamboo Palm, English Ivy, and Snake Plant are all known to be a few of the best air detoxifying plants out there.
Off-gassing can be very dangerous for human health and it can cause unpleasant symptoms especially in people who are chemically sensitive or suffer from asthma and allergies. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals released from different products in your home, such as buying non toxic furniture and mattresses, using air-purifying plants or air purifiers and choosing all-natural cleaning products. Be sure to check other articles on our website to find out more about non toxic products for your home.
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