In a typical living room, building products and furniture can be the biggest sources of off-gassing, a process during which VOC’s (volatile organic compounds).
Volatile Organic Compounds
The term “organic compounds” covers all chemicals containing carbon and hydrogen. Volatile organic compounds are those organic compounds that have boiling points roughly in the range of 50-250oC. There are probably several thousand chemicals, synthetic and natural, that can be called VOCs. Of these, over 900 have been identified in indoor air, with over 250 recorded at concentrations higher than 1 ppb. Sources of VOC’s in a typical home include cigarette smoke, household products like air fresheners, furnishings, vehicle exhaust and building materials such as paint, varnish and glues.
Source: Health Canada
These fumes are released into the air we breathe. The process can take years to reach a safe level of evaporation and certain people are more sensitive to the fumes. Fortunately, steps can be taken to speed up the process. Read on.
Off-gassing of new carpets has been responsible for serious health problems in some individuals. In a surprising test, Dr. Anderson of Anderson Labs put small samples of new carpeting with mice and found that they encountered similar symptoms to those being reported by affected people. Symptoms included breathing problems, tremors, convulsions and other neurological symptoms. Surprisingly, some of the mice died.
From the Anderson Labs web site:
“We have studied several hundred of these carpets in our
laboratory. Under carefully controlled conditions, we had
groups of laboratory mice breath air containing the mixtures
of chemicals released by these carpets. Like the people, the
mice became acutely ill with irritation of the eyes, nose, and
throat, difficulty breathing, and altered nervous system
function(showing up as tremors, falling, altered posture,
paralysis of legs, stupor, and convulsions). Some of the mice
died as a result of exposure to these carpet gases. The data
demonstrate that certain carpets release toxic (poisonous)
chemicals into the air.
Numerous studies have shown that there are over 200 chemicals
in the mixtures of gases which are released by new carpets.
No one has made a serious attempt to determine which of these
chemicals is responsible for the acute illnesses which occur
in certain new carpet owners.
The symptoms reported by the owners of these carpets were diverse:
headache, confusion, loss of memory, depression, dizziness,
burning eyes, nose, and throat, difficulty breathing, fatigue,
weakness, skin rash, hair loss, etc.”
Anyone wanting to read more about industry response, can find it here in this article.
To speed up off-gassing, allow a new carpet to sit outside for a minimum of three days before installing. Once it’s installed, leave windows open and use a fan to move air outside. Ask the installer to use non-toxic adhesive or none at all. Opt for tacking the carpet down. There are also water-based products designed to seal in fumes from new carpets, although it makes better sense to avoid the problem entirely by choosing carpets made from safer fibres.
High temperatures and humidity speed up off-gassing. This is not what you want, once a carpet’s installed. By keeping both low, you lessen the release rate of VOC’s into the air.
Filtering the air with a filter designed for VOC’s can also provide relief and absorb fumes. Activated carbon filters do the job well.
Fibres, Pads, Glues and Cleaning
Healthier carpets are made from natural fibres like organic wool which hasn’t been treated with pesticides. Instead of gluing, carpets can be tacked down with tack strips, a very effective method. Avoid synthetic underlays which are foam (petroleum) glued together with formaldehyde. Instead, choose a natural underlay such as one made from wool or camel’s hair felt. Pass on the stain repellant and buy undyed carpeting. This site has more info and examples of non-toxic carpets and cleaners.
Don’t want carpet?
Other sources of flooring have expanded to include natural, renewable sources like bamboo (a grass) and cork (bark from the cork tree) and linoleum, made from linseed oil and other natural materials. Please note that linoleum does include an odor that not all will tolerate. Non-toxic, water-based flooring finishes like stains, paints and sealants are available. Look for “no VOC’s” or “Non-Toxic” on the label. This site has examples of safer flooring products.
Beware of an industry green labels which allow for low emissions of VOC’s. Better but not VOC-free.
Natural fibres like cotton, wool and hemp are found in some “natural” living room furniture. Organic options can be free of toxic fire retardants. They are likely to use wool, a natural fire retardant. Chemical treatments with water-proofing or stain-resistant properties are also optional and anyone concerned about health effects should be able to find furniture made without, thereby avoiding exposure to PFOA and other such chemicals.
Futons are an option many choose today because they can be covered with a natural fabric and there are choices when it comes to the construction.
Want more info?
For more on what’s in fire retardants, read previous post here.
Please read more about stain repellent fabric here.
Listen to audio: Living in a Chemical Soup talkcast about safer living rooms.
Copyright Lynn Argent, 2008. Reproduction without the written permission of the author is prohibited.