Volatile Organic Compounds – or VOCs – vary in toxicity, and carcinogenic compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene are the most concerning. But the main issue is that they can continue to seep out of the walls, kitchen cabinets and floors for many months, or even years, following installation. And a cocktail of these toxic vapours can rapidly accumulate in poorly ventilated areas.
The health impacts of exposure to VOCs vary according to the chemical emitted, and the severity and duration of exposure. VOCs are often to blame for complaints such as headaches, eye and nose irritation, respiratory issues, fatigue, poor concentration and allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure has also been implicated in the development of more serious illnesses.
The good news, however, is that as awareness of the effects of VOCs has grown, manufacturers have started developing products that generate fewer toxic emissions. When building and decorating, it’s becoming easier to make choices that will create healthier environments for ourselves and our families. We’ve identified some easy, practical VOC-busting decorating options.
If you’re serious about reducing VOC emissions in your home, flooring is a great place to start – mainly because there’s so much of it. New carpeting, which is often treated with flame retardants, stain repellents and antimicrobial agents, can release high levels of VOCs for several days after installation, and low levels for months or years to come. Synthetic backing, underlays and adhesives used during installation are also VOC culprits.
To reduce the chemical load, choose a woollen carpet with a natural-fibre backing. Wool has natural flame- and stain-resistant properties, is luxurious underfoot, and is a renewable resource. And don’t forget to ask your supplier for a low-VOC underlay. When your new carpet is installed, try to stay out of the room for a few days and ensure the area is well ventilated to help flush the fumes away.
This Melbourne home was designed by David Saunders of S2 Design and features recycled, plantation-grown timber and zero-VOC finishes throughout. Saunders used non-toxic oils to bring lustre to the timber floors and ceiling panels.
The bright-blue floor plays a starring role in this loft play space. The look was achieved by painting the sub-floor material with Ecos VOC-free paint in ‘Gualala’. Try Dulux for a similar product.
Modern kitchen cabinets are manufactured from a composite timber product called MDF (medium density fibreboard), which is made by binding wood fibres together with – you guessed it – urea-formaldehyde resin. Most MDF sold is rated E1. If you’re renovating a kitchen, consider asking your carpenter to use E0 MDF instead, which contains half the formaldehyde of the E1 panels.
Paint – the most fundamental element of any decorating project – is a veritable melting pot of VOCs. The magic of paint is that it goes on wet and dries to a lovely hard-wearing, dirt-resistant finish – and it takes a complex amalgam of chemicals to perform this task. While compositions vary, fumes from standard paints can include formaldehyde, benzene, and methylene chloride. Enamel paints, being solvent-based, will release more VOCs than water-based acrylics. Tints contain VOCs as well, so the darker the colour, the higher the chemical load.
Most low-cost furniture these days is manufactured from MDF, which, as previously mentioned, presents a major source of toxic VOC emissions. In nurseries and bedrooms in particular, seek out quality furniture made from solid plantation-grown timber and painted with a low or zero-VOC finish.
Building materials, furnishings, floor coverings, paint, carpets and furniture slowly release VOCs over time, and these can build up in closed-off, unventilated rooms. So throw open the windows regularly to give these emissions a chance to escape. Ideally, you want to open windows on opposite sides of a room, which will allow the cross-breeze to flush the toxins away.
Are you concerned about VOCs in the home? What strategies have you used to reduce your exposure to them? Share these in the Comments below.