Tips for Building Healthy Home – Minimize VOCs
Tips for Building Healthy Home –
Part 1: Minimize VOCs
Minimize Exposure to Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is one of the most common industrial chemicals and is widely used as a component of building products, upholstery, carpeting, etc. and classified as a human carcinogen. Formaldehyde’s other health impacts include respiratory problems; eye, nose, and throat irritation; allergic reactions; and depression. Its emissions can be recognized by the telltale sweet smell in most new kitchen and bath cabinets. Avoiding formaldehyde when building a new home can be a challenge, but the reward is much healthier home. This post on tips for building a healthy home will recommend how to minimize VOCs, including formaldehyde.
We can minimize formaldehyde emissions in new buildings and remodels by carefully choosing materials and furnishings, or by sealing those products containing formaldehyde. Avoid products made with urea-formaldehyde (UF) binders. These wood products have higher formaldehyde emissions than products made with phenol-formaldehyde (PF) binders, although the difference is far less than it used to be. UF binders are only used in interior-grade products, so selecting products made for exterior use automatically ensures that the product has PF binders. Products with methyl diisocyanate (MDI) binders should emit no formaldehyde other than that present in the wood itself. MDI contributes to a better indoor environment for building occupants—once cured, it is extremely stable with virtually no off-gassing—but it is extremely toxic in the factory. You can also test the building after completion. Home test kits are available that measure the average indoor concentration of formaldehyde.
Minimize VOC Exposure
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are among the most complex and troubling indoor air pollutants. Manufactured and synthesized products, especially paints, stains, and adhesives that are applied wet, often release large quantities of VOCs. While wet-applied products emit the most VOCs immediately after curing, some continue to off-gas such compounds for a long time. In addition, VOCs emitted during curing can become attached to other surfaces in the space, especially fabrics, and then be re-emitted over time. If the products are produced from fossil fuels, some of the compounds they release, such as benzene, styrene, formaldehyde, and toluene, may be irritating, toxic, or even carcinogenic.
Carpet installations can be among the most significant sources of VOCs in new or remodeled buildings. Consider alternatives to wall-to-wall carpeting like hardwood flooring, tile, slate, natural linoleum, or natural cork. If considering such flooring alternatives, carefully examine the adhesives, sealers and cleaning agents that could result in VOC emissions during installation and maintenance. For wood-floor finishes, waterborne polyurethane is suggested. Waterborne finishes have been tested for durability, and many wear comparably to solvent-based ones.
For commercial and residential architectural cabinetwork, clear lacquers that contain solvents are still common because they spray on and dry quickly so they can be sanded between coats. Less durable than varnish and waterborne polyurethanes/acrylics, these lacquers have very high VOC levels and use some of the most toxic solvents out there.
“Varnish” is a catchall term for drying oils combined with acrylic and or polyurethane resins. These products form durable coatings but usually contain flammable, toxic solvents and are slowly being replaced by waterborne formulations. Waterborne polyurethanes and acrylics are not as safe as natural oils but far less toxic than those that contain aromatic solvents. When possible, have woodwork sprayed at a factory and allow products to cure fully there. This also allows the emissions to be captured before entering the environment–or your building.
Paints and coatings have their greatest effect on indoor air quality during and immediately after installation. The health hazard is particularly acute for installers. Most conventional products off-gas VOCs, and other chemicals that are added to enhance the performance or extend shelf life of the product. Quality substitutions, which are lower in toxicity or nontoxic, are available for all of these products.
Tips for building healthy home will have subsequent editions from Kunjan Shah.