A woman sits on a couch, worried about off-gassing from her furniture.
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Dresser Dilemmas: Stylish or Hazardous

Furniture Fumes: How Concerned Should You Be About Off-Gassing?

Steve Hansen
/
December 5, 2023

The Chemicals Involved

Manufactured products that we bring into our homes can have a lot of chemicals in them that can be unhealthy for humans. Some of those chemicals are called “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs, and they exist in a maddening variety of the everyday stuff that’s more or less a part of normal life. When you get a new sofa or new car, that “new” smell is coming from VOCs. The same goes for your fresh, dry-cleaned clothes: VOCs.

So why does all this matter? Because some VOCs are nasty and harmful compounds, and they can get into our bodies through a common process called off-gassing. In particular, we can single out formaldehyde as a known carcinogen that’s used extensively in modern furniture materials. Manufacturers use formaldehyde in MDF (medium-density fiberboard), plywood, particle board, and melamine, as well as in adhesives that hold some furniture together.

In addition to VOCs being in so many products and materials, we’re making our homes more airtight for energy-efficiency reasons. That increases the potential for our indoor air quality to be compromised by VOCs and other pollutants.

What is Off-Gassing?

This is the process of a material releasing VOCs as gases into the air. When materials off-gas harmful compounds like VOCs, any people and animals present will breathe in some of those compounds. That can result in ill health effects for people with certain health conditions and also for babies and children whose respiratory systems are still developing. But really, respiratory irritation is a danger to all humans and animals. Everyone has to breathe nonstop, after all.

What are VOCs?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are chemicals that are used in a large number of commonplace products and are often present in most homes, including:

  • Cleaning products
  • Permanent markers
  • Copiers and printers
  • Correction fluid
  • Paints
  • Paint strippers
  • Paint thinners
  • Pesticides
  • Motor fuels
  • Air fresheners
  • Adhesives and glues
  • Wood preservatives

Some signs of exposure to VOCs include:

  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Dizziness
  • Eye, nose, and throat discomfort
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Labored breathing
  • Nausea
  • Nosebleed
  • Vomiting

What Materials and Furniture Are the Worst for Off-Gassing?

In furniture and home materials, cheap carpeting and cheap vinyl flooring have been particularly bad offenders. As I mentioned, plywood, particle board, MDF, and melamine all often use formaldehyde, one of the nasty VOCs.

A woman assembles furniture made of plywood
Adobe Stock

Mattresses seem like they might be cause for concern, considering that you spend a good chunk of every night right on one. According to this article, though, that’s not necessarily the case. They performed testing on various mattresses and stated that “For most sleepers, the compounds emitted during off-gassing are generally harmless. VOCs associated with synthetic foam do not pose major known health risks, but they may be irritating for sleepers with respiratory conditions or chemical sensitivities.”

That brings up a key point: third-party testing and certification. In the last couple of decades, several organizations have stepped up to address that need.

What Should People Look For In Healthy and Environmentally Friendly Furniture?

Several organizations now provide testing and labeling stating that materials and furniture are sustainable or nontoxic, including:

The Forest Stewardship Council: This group supports sustainable forestry across various industries, including the furniture industry.

OEKO-TEX: This company certifies the environmental bona fides of a large variety of materials, including textiles and synthetic foam, and provides several labels to communicate the sustainability of those materials.

GREENGUARD: Associated with Underwriters Laboratories (UL), this group tests and certifies furniture, flooring, building materials, electronics, interiors, and cleaning products. According to the website, “UL GREENGUARD Certification criteria have served as the basis for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credit for low-emitting furniture since 2002.” You can also access the SPOT product database, with more than 130,000 sustainable and certified products.

GOTS: The Global Organic Textile Standard provides a way for textile processing, manufacturing, and trading companies to become certified and to connect with shops that use their materials. GOTS also provides customer-friendly labeling that sellers and producers can use on their products.

An industry trade group, the Sustainable Furnishings Council, offers a “quick buying guide” that mentions some helpful tips for furniture shoppers and addresses sustainability. Here are some highlights:

  • What's it made of? The materials make up the huge majority of any product’s environmental impact.
  • Where does the wood come from? Was it harvested responsibly and legally?
  • Is the wood third-party certified? Such as with the FSC noted above.
  • What about textiles? Are they certified with OEKO-TEX or GOTS?
  • What about leather? Is this certified as sustainable? OEKO-TEX certifies leather production.
  • Were paints or finishes with high VOCs used on this product? Low-VOC and no-VOC finishes are available.
  • What about fire retardants in foam, including mattresses? Fire retardants have been linked to serious health effects, and safer alternatives are available. OEKO-TEX certifies sustainable synthetic foam.
  • Where was this furniture made? Choosing local products has a massive impact on a product’s sustainability, both for fuel consumption and for CO2 production.
  • Does this manufacturer have an energy use reduction plan? Companies that choose to use less electricity and buy from renewable sources when possible can make a difference in their product’s carbon footprint.

Other Options to Consider

If you already have some furniture pieces that you think or are certain have some unsavory materials, you could try to seal, encase, and promote the off-gassing process, as described in this article, “How to Off Gas New Furniture.”

The author presents quite a few techniques depending on the type of furniture, such as a sofa vs cabinets. The place to start, usually, is by increasing the airflow and heat around the piece. “Before assembling the furniture (ideally), take it somewhere to promote off-gassing. Use airflow and heat to speed up the outgassing of chemicals from the materials,” she notes.

You can also place new furniture in a spare room or garage for a few days before they make it into their final place, to keep the VOCs away from people as much as possible.

If you’re in this situation and you don’t want to replace the furniture, you’ll find many ideas here. Another that I would consider is improving your home’s ventilation with a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or energy recovery ventilator (ERV). You can learn more about those here, but the gist is that these machines are sophisticated ventilation systems for today’s tight homes that also recover the heat that used to be lost. They also have excellent filtration systems to maintain your indoor air quality.

If that’s not an option, my next move would be to get a high-quality air purifier with three-stage filtration. This one, for example, says specifically that it targets VOCs.

Overall, it’s not easy to say if you have a VOC issue in your home without actually testing it. For that, you can get a VOC meter with an app to monitor the VOC levels in your house. This could be very useful in figuring out why and/or when you’re noticing symptoms. It’s possible that you could see spikes during the day that let you know something in the house is awry. But if you or anyone in your household is noticing symptoms, it definitely pays to look into it.

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