November 7, 2012 by Julie Montanaro
Have you ever heard the term "off-gassing?" This is not potty humor. This is serious business.
If you are considering building a new home or doing any home improvement projects, you should know what it means.
It may be happening in your kitchen, your living room, even in the bedrooms where you and your children sleep.
We tagged along on a visit to Sarah Gray’s home as an expert pointed out common sources of potentially dangerous chemicals.
Three year old Verity Gray is winning this game of Candy Land.
She and her one year old sister spend lots of time on the rugs and hardwoods here. "It's where they live. It's their playground," their mother Sarah said with a laugh.
So it came as quite a surprise to her mom that that "new carpet” smell we all love, may actually be dangerous.
"Did you ever consider that something as simple as your carpet could be having an impact on the air?"
"I thought so when we first got it,” Sarah Gray said, “because I remember unrolling it when we bought it home and it having a little bit of that smell, but it went away after a couple of days."
"There's something called VOC's - volatile organic compounds. VOC's are a whole collection of chemicals that turn into gases at room temperature. They're sort of off-gassing into the air,” said FSU Professor Lisa Waxman. “We've sort of been trained to think that if our house smells clean, that it's a good thing, but actually a lot of those smells are really not good for us."
Waxman heads up FSU's Department of Interior Design. She teaches "sustainable design." She recommends natural fibers and fabrics like cotton and wool and furnishings made of solid wood.
"If you do bring in a synthetic into your space, you want to give that time to breathe, you know,” Waxman said. “If you have a place to sort of open it up , take it out of its ... if it's wrapped in plastic or whatever ... and sort of let it breathe outside on a porch or in a garage. Let it kind of off-gas for a couple of days before you bring it into your house."
"Cabinets, you want to take a look at your cabinets?"
We asked Waxman to take a look at Sarah Gray's home and recommend other ways to make it healthier. She headed straight for the kitchen
"Cabinets can be a potential source of formaldehyde," Waxman said as she opened a cabinet above the stove.
"Really?" Gray asked.
"Yeah. So it depends on what they're made of. Solid wood cabinets are better, but if you have pressed particle board cabinet ... and you may also have that with book shelves and things you may buy just to store your children's toys on and that sort of thing ... if they're made with that, that off gases quite a bit for the first year and half and then it will off gas up to five to seven years after that," Waxman said.
Waxman says "off-gassing" a lot. New homes or newly renovated homes are particularly at risk. That includes all four walls. The next time you paint, she suggests, check the label. You can find low VOC or no VOC paint too.
Sarah Gray says this quick lesson in healthier indoor air will change the way she shops and the way she decorates Verity's world.
"I like just her reminder that the more natural the better, pretty much is how I kept thinking of it in my mind as she was talking, solid wood, cotton or wool even for rugs and not going with synthetics," Gray said afterward. 'I just feel so much better knowing that what they're crawling on and what their toys are on, what inevitably goes in their mouth is not coated in chemicals."
Formaldehyde is considered a "probable carcinogen" by the EPA.
The way folks respond to it and other VOC's can vary greatly. They can irritate your eyes, agitate your respiratory system and even cause some people to break out in hives. There are meters made to test the levels of formaldehyde and other VOC's in your home. Many cost hundreds of dollars.
Don't stop at your front door. Waxman suggests landscaping your yard with native plants that require less pesticides, fertilizer and water. Try taking your shoes off by the front door too, she says, not only can it help to keep your home clean, it can keep chemicals out of your house.
WAXMAN’S CHECKLIST FOR HOMES, OLD AND NEW:
Any leaks? Repair promptly to minimize possibility of mold behind your walls
Especially important in homes with a fireplace
Place carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms
Homes built before 1970 should be checked for lead paint
Choose paints with low VOC’s or no VOC’s
Formaldehyde can be used in pressed particle board cabinets and furniture
Ask for pressed board with no formaldehyde, though it can be more expensive
Choose solid wood cabinets and furniture whenever possible
Beware of VOC’s in synthetic carpets
If you do buy synthetics, unroll them outside and let them air out for a few days
Look for green and white CRI label (Carpet and Rug Institute)
Choose natural fibers like cotton and wool whenever possible
Choose native plants to minimize use of pesticides, fertilizer and water
GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS TO MINIMIZE POLLUTANTS AND CHEMICALS:
Choose natural woods and fabrics
Choose unscented products (candles, cleaners, etc) whenever posssible
Use vinegar and other natural cleaners
Ventilate your home regularly, open windows and run fans
HELPFUL WEB SITES
Environmental Working Group
US Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide