Volatile Organic Compounds or Voc's are at the heart of the off gassing issue.

Off-Gassing What is off-gassing? I’m not going there so no snickering from the middle schoolers, please.

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Off-gassing is a serious problem. Almost everything that we have in our homes (including furniture), cars, and places of work off-gasses. Off-gassing is the process by which chemicals in the products that we use every day are freed into the air. This off-gassing is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or gases into the air. The process is most active when an item is new. With time, the emissions will decrease. How long that takes varies somewhat by product. The various government agencies that monitor chemical emissions are, of course swamped. Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced since the 1950s. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies are underfunded and over-worked. Even if the government agencies had the resources to test all the chemicals used in the United States, how about what China sends us. And think of all the possible combinations.

Here is a short list of items that we use every day that give off gases. Carpet and paint (yes that new house smell is from VOCs), mattresses with artificial latex, upholstered furniture, un-upholstered furniture, your floors and roof substrates, curtains, wood floors. The particle board and plywood in your furniture and house give off formaldehyde. Shellac, lacquer, varnish and plastic finishes such as polyurethane off-gas. Electronics, printer ink and toner are perpetrators along with dry cleaning chemicals. That lovely “new car” smell is made up of a myriad of chemicals from upholstery, artificial latex foam, electronics and plastics. No-iron sheets and wash and wear clothes emit gasses. The chemicals used to achieve this modern miracle of laundering are volatile. Stain proof carpet and upholstery also off-gas.

picture of upholstered sofa

These chemicals may cause respiratory, eye or skin irritation and, depending on the chemicals and the exposure, they could cause more serious health problems.

There are steps that we can take to minimize our exposure. For example, we can look for seals of agencies and organizations that certify the purity or greenness (to coin a word) of products. If you wish to limit the exposure of your family, take the time to check out the following certifying groups.

Some seals of approval or certification labels that you may want to look for are the Safer Choice program run by the EPA. Safer Choice encourages and helps in the development of products that are friendly to the environment. They work with leaders in various industries to eliminate toxic chemicals and promote energy efficiency.

Greenguard is an organization that sets standards for electronics, building materials, furniture components, personal hygiene products and cleaning and maintenance products, among other items. Greenguard is owned by Underwriters Laboratory and they certify products that are tested by approved testing labs.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the standards for all agricultural products that are labeled as organic. To be approved by the USDA a product may not be irradiated, genetically modified or have been given antibiotics. Ignore claims that products are “all natural”. There are no standards for this claim so it is meaningless. There are many more certifying agencies but check them out. Some products are certified by groups with close industry ties. Some manufacturers design their own labels which are often without merit.


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Steps that you can take on your own are: Avoid using household items that are scented such as dryer sheets, bathroom cleaners, air fresheners, and deodorant. Purchase high VOC items such as carpet or upholstered furniture in warm weather when feasible, so that you are able to air the items out. Open your windows as much as possible.Use your computers, monitors and printers in well ventilated areas when you can. Try to buy solid wood furniture - not particle board or plywood. Try to buy organic mattresses with real latex, wool and cotton. Likewise, sofas and carpet. These items will cost more but if you are among the people that react to VOCs, it will be worth it. Read your newspaper online. The print and even the paper can give off gases that may cause nasal irritation, sneezing and headaches. Avoiding all dangerous chemicals and gases is almost impossible in today’s world. Do what you can to minimize exposure. Research products that you are interested in on the computer. Google is a vast source of information on this subject. Try to avoid products from third world countries that do not have the same safety standards that the United States and Europe do. Use a fan, dehumidifier and or open windows and doors for the first few days that you have a product with an odor. Have furniture delivered. This will allow more time for the VOCs to be reduced. If you are proactive in reducing exposure to off-gassing, you should not have problems.

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