Many of us inhale the smell of a clean kitchen, a freshly painted room or a recently delivered piece of furniture with a degree of pleasure. But that smell we think of as 'new' is actually the smell of toxic VOCs.
Words by Natasha Were
That freshly-unpacked, unsullied-by-use odour comes from the multitude of chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process of many construction materials and household goods.
These chemicals, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are found in everything from particleboard, carpets and mattresses to paint, electrical equipment and household cleaning products.
What is Off-Gassing?
The problem is that VOCs do not remain locked into these materials. Over time, they seep out into the atmosphere, where they are inhaled or absorbed by humans and animals. This is the process referred to as off-gassing.
VOCs in the atmosphere can cause allergic reactions. Eye, skin and nose irritation and nausea are common, but more worryingly, some are known carcinogens and are suspected of causing damage to the immune and the nervous systems.
Off-gassing increases at higher temperatures, making it a particular cause for concern in warm climates. The risk is greatest in new buildings, which are filled with new materials and furniture, and where air-tight modern construction traps the VOCs indoors.
The concentration of VOCs is often two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, and can be hundreds of times higher after a fresh coat of paint has been applied or new furnishings installed.
How can I avoid VOCs?
✹ Ventilation and airing out: Open up windows regularly to flush toxins out. Hang new soft furnishings outdoors for a few days to air them out, and unpack new furniture while still in storage to allow off-gassing to commence.
✹ Choose natural materials: Seek out organic, cotton, silk, wool and sisal rugs and soft furnishings, and natural latex mattresses. Choose solid wood furniture over pressed wood and non-toxic ceramic tiles.
✹ Look for Low or Zero VOC products: Manufacturers are finding ways to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in their products so look for products labelled as Low VOC or No VOC. Low VOC paints are increasingly widely available.
✹ Be guided by third party certification: When sourcing finishes and materials for the home look for Greenguard, Green Seal, Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) or Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certifications. All are all third party organisations that approve low-emitting products and materials.
✹ Avoid the worst offenders: PVC, linoleum, pressed wood materials and fitted carpets that are glued in place can be some of the most toxic, so avoid these when possible.
✹ Out with the new, in with the old: New materials stop off-gassing eventually, so used products are generally a safer option. Consider opting for antiques or used furniture, and sourcing recycled construction materials.
These tiles not only look good, they also clean your atmosphere. Part of Iris U.S.’s Green Choice tiles, the Active TM Photocatalytic Ceramics absorb and remove nitrogen oxide air pollutants by way of photocatalysts that interact with light and humidity.
Long-lasting and easy on the environment, these thick Turkish towels are hand loomed and made from either organic cotton or bamboo. Super soft, they are ideal for the bath and are available in gorgeous creamy white.
Inspired by nature, Devine Colour is low odour paint that emits zero VOCs as calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency method 24. A lush, durable, washable paint, they offer over 200 colour choices.
A leader in eco-friendly manufacturing, LEE Furniture offers products largely made from renewable resources. Cushions are filled with 100% recycled fibres, wood is SCS certified and bonded with a soy-based resin, all finishes are low VOC’s and 80% of metal components are recycled.
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