Outgassing. If you don’t know what it is, as I didn’t until recently, it might sound like one of those little slips in bodily function that all humans occasionally have, only outside. But it’s more serious than that.
With its unfortunate name, outgassing, sometimes called offgassing, is the release of a gas that has been trapped or absorbed in a solid or liquid material. The process occurs all the time in nature, but for us at home it refers to the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from our new home furnishings and coverings. We don’t want to be breathing in VOCs because they include a variety of chemicals that can have short or long term adverse health effects.
The problem reached national attention after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave about 140,000 trailers and mobile homes to families displaced by the storm, but soon after, many of the recipients began to suffer from burning eyes, bloody noses, headaches and breathing problems. As it turned out, the construction materials used for many of the trailers, combined with poor ventilation, exposed families to dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Particleboard is a notorious source for this indoor containment, and it was used extensively in constructing the trailers.
The most common outgassing culprits in our homes are carpets, mattresses, paint and particleboard. But VOCs are also released from common household products such as cleaning supplies, pesticides, glues, permanent markers and adhesives.
Surprisingly, there is a risk of granite countertops emitting too much radon, which occurs through radiation rather than outgassing, but affects our indoor health in similar ways. The vast majority of granite countertops are safe, and granite suppliers have shown extra diligence in testing slabs before they are sold ever since a 2008 article in The New York Times brought the issue to the fore. In that article, a homeowner’s new countertop brought the level of radon in her kitchen to a dangerously high level, carrying the same cancer risk as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
Testing for radon is easy and inexpensive. Kits can be purchased at radon.com or at most home improvement stores for under $20. Unfortunately, if your granite countertop is emitting dangerous levels of radon, there is nothing to do but remove it and replace it with tested granite or one of the attractive substitutes on the market.
If outgassing is a problem in your home, your nose may have told you so already. The first way to deal with the problem is to limit the number of outgassing items coming into your home in the first place. You may opt to buy solid wood furniture with an all-natural finish. All natural rugs made from organic wool, jute, or sisal will spare you the familiar but unpleasant smell of new carpet.
Mattresses are a tricky matter because much of the environmental labeling is still not regulated, but a natural latex mattress with a wool topping is a popular eco-friendly choice. Indoor paints with low or no VOC emissions are becoming widely available. However, more wholesome alternatives may come at a higher purchase price, and the designs and options may not be to everyone’s taste.
One way to reduce exposure to outgassed VOCs is to let items air out before bringing them into your home. Newly-manufactured items release most of their fumes within the first few days or weeks after being unpacked. If you have a garage or a closed-off but well-ventilated spare room, consider putting your new item there for a week or two before bringing it into your living space.
Another recommended option is to purchase used pieces of furniture, where one can assume that most of the outgassing has already taken place. But then, how many of us want to buy old stuff?
If you are painting your home with conventional paints, see if you can time it for right before everyone leaves on a trip away.
VOCs are outgassed at different rates, and they outgas faster in areas with warmer temperatures and higher humidity. Some scientists suggest that we “bake-out” our homes to help clear the area. With this method, which generates some debate among experts, you set the heat in your home in the 90s, increase the ventilation, and leave it like that for at least three days. But, that seems like a lot of sweat, literally, not to mention the energy expense.
Throughout our marriage, my wife and I have furnished our homes with antique furniture and old rugs. Now I discover that what was a style preference on our part may in fact have spared us the effects of outgassing and reoccurring health problems. Sometimes you do the right thing without knowing it.