It’s in that familiar “new car smell,” but it can be a new TV smell, new gadget smell, or freshly washed laundry smell, too. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant odor (like a perfume or cologne) — or it can be a noxious reek that lasts for weeks. We’re talking about off-gassing.
Also referred to as outgassing, it’s a process whereby manufactured products give off toxic fumes that can be detrimental to the health of the people and animals in your home.
Hearing such claims can be scary, even if you don’t understand what they mean, so let’s break it down.
Offgassing is when products release particulate matter and gases that were formerly trapped in a liquid or solid form. The resulting gases, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are often carcinogenic in themselves, or can react with other common air components to form known carcinogens.
Unfortunately, these gases don’t just come from low-quality or unsafe products, but are also found in “green” and “natural” ones as well. Whatever the labels may say, however, the VOCs these products emit can cause serious health problems. They may aggravate breathing issues such as asthma, cause allergic reactions, produce headaches or fatigue, and generally make life unpleasant or even dangerous.
Here are several of the most common ways you may be experiencing off-gassing.
Paint, Wax and Varnish
Paint, wax and varnish, which cover surfaces ranging from your walls and ceilings, to chairs and cutting boards, contain many dangerous VOCs. Chief among them is formaldehyde, a preservative found in paint (as well as cleaners, textiles, cleaning products and more). Formaldehyde is also off-gassed from resins used in manufacturing of a wide range of wood products, from laminate wood flooring to pressed wood to particle board.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, this chemical can cause “eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions.” Moreover, “long term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals.”
If you’re planning on doing some painting, make sure to look for so-called Low VOC or Zero VOC paints.
Cosmetics and Nail Polish Remover
It probably doesn’t surprise you to know that many cosmetics contain toxins. Unfortunately, some of these toxins — which according to the New York State Department of Health may include acetone, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methacrylates (methyl or ethyl) or ethyl acetate — are VOCs, which may offgas into your air when used or stored.
Instead of using regular nail polish, have a look at non-toxic nail polishes, which are free of harmful chemicals.
Electronics, which are now ubiquitous in many homes, can release significant amounts of chemicals; for instance, chemicals may offgas from insulation on wiring that contains the flame retardant triphenyl phosphate. Plastic casing and circuit boards can also offgas. And in the office, laser printers and photocopiers were found to emit at least 30 compounds of VOCs, according to this UC Berkeley study.
Wooden furniture and upholstery often offgases formaldehyde, a chemical known to cause eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions. Even when furniture isn’t covered with VOC-containing waxes, varnishes, polishes or paint, the resins used to manufacture furniture often contain volatile organic compounds. Plastics, upholstery and treated wood may all contain VOCs, which may be harmful to your health and the health of your family.
Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener
Researchers at the University of Washington at Seattle detected over 133 different types of VOCs in common laundry products, and found that each product off-gassed between one and eight toxic substances.
Shockingly, those tiny slips of papery fabric you put in your dryer may be harming you. These, and many other commonly used scented products, often emit a range of VOCs in high quantities. And as one study showed, even so-called “green” and “organic” scented home products contain VOCs.
That study, from the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, measured 25 products including “laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, disinfectants, dish detergents, all-purpose cleaners, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos.” Researchers detected over 133 different types of VOCs in these products, and found that each product emitted between one and eight toxic substances, while 44 percent of them generated at least one carcinogenic air pollutant..
Next time you go to dry your laundry, try a chemical free wool dryer ball instead.
Cleaning products can contain a high degree of VOC-producing chemicals. Often these come from the same sources as they do in dryer sheets, fabric softener and other home products: scents. Air fresheners, cleaning sprays and other aerosols are of particular concern, since they are literally made to release tiny droplets into the atmosphere.
Think about alternatives to your previous cleaning products and instead using ingredients you may already have at home (e.g. baking soda and vinegar). Check out this web page for recipes using day-to-day ingredients for cleaning.
So what’s a concerned homeowner to do? The best thing to do is to try and source your goods as VOC-free as possible. More and more manufacturers are creating products with reduced amounts of VOCs, so look for those on the label or on the manufacturer’s website.
Alternatively, do your best to go fragrance-free. Claudia Miller, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, notes that repeated exposure to small amounts of household chemicals can induce something called onset intolerance, leading to asthma, migraine headaches, and even depression. “The best smell is no smell,” Miller says.
The closer you can get to a VOC-free existence, the better for both you and your family.