How long does it take for VOCs to dissipate?

Contrary to what many may believe, it is quite difficult to predict how long it takes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to off-gas from new materials in a specific building.  Sure, you can do chamber studies under controlled conditions to determine emission or concentration decays, but how the material will behave in the real world can be quite different.

On Friday I was hired to perform a follow-up assessment for a home under construction that is experiencing elevated VOCs from varnishes and paints applied almost 7 months ago.  One month ago I was in the home and found some very high levels based on measurements with a photoionization detector (PID).  While PIDs are not as accurate or detailed as other methods of measuring VOCs, they can be used as a good screening tool with immediate feedback.  I’ll write a blog post on the advantages and disadvantages of PIDs in the near future.

During my follow up visit a month later, I saw a 40% reduction after he followed some of my recommendations listed in this blog post: Reducing VOCs.  Unfortunately, this was still 4 times the outdoor levels.  We opened up some windows in a room and very quickly we saw a significant reduction.   Here are a list of the problems:

  • The home uses 2×6 “advanced framing” making the walls better insulated and tighter.  However, the home is not bringing in mechanical ventilation.  Many states have laws requiring mechanical ventilation.
  • The owner selected hardwood floor varnish and oil-based paints high in VOC content and emission. He should have used products listed in the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute Product Guide.
  • The owner moved in before the home was complete.  It would have been better to wait for the VOCs to dissipate more.

So back to the question at hand… how long does it take?  We can find some answers in a recent article in the Indoor Air Jounal titled “Decreasing concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted following home renovations”.  The authors found a return to “normal” VOC levels after 2-3 months.  The research was based on “real life” studies in Germany, not chamber tests.

Use the 2-3 month timeframe only as a guide, as my experience in the tight home with strong sources indicates it can take much longer.

42 Responses to “How long does it take for VOCs to dissipate?”

  1. Glenn July 12, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    I fully expect you to be wearing those glasses at the next IAQA conference!!!

  2. pausleal July 13, 2010 at 5:20 am #

    It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  3. Autism Symptoms August 1, 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  4. Stefani Howland July 16, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Very helpful! Would you say diffusion rate for new mattresses same as paint off gassing? And any studies done you’re aware of re “emission/concentration decays”??

    • Ian Cull July 16, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      I looked through my library of articles, and the only one I found that came close to matching was, “Inhalation Exposure to Brominated Flame Retardants in the Sleeping Microenvironment: Preliminary Modeling and Results”. I’ll email you a copy privately.

  5. Stefani Howland July 18, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Thank you! It’ll be good to have some concrete info; Looking forward to a good read!

  6. Daniela January 21, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    Help! My renovators have just used oil-based varnish on my floors and I am worried about VOC emission as I have a 2.5 yr old. Is it worth re-doing the floors with water varnish?

    • Ian Cull January 21, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

      @Daniela,

      There are too many variables to know exactly what is going on. The expense of testing the air may exceed the cost of just having the floors redone. Ventilation may be a viable option. Keep the windows open and get as many air changes as possible. If you’re in a cold climate, that may not be possible this time of year.

      Have you or your child had sensitivities to chemicals in the past? That could be the most important variable of all!

  7. Dawn Lullo February 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    My neighbor one floor above me in a condo building refaced her kitchen cabinets (stripped them first). I ended up in the hospital room the day after the work was done. That was in mid-December. I am still very sick and have vacated my condo for good. I tried leaving for days at a time, but would get sick again after returning home. She has not been home since the work and will not respond to requests to ventilate. We live in Chicago, so it’s cold here now.

    I live in a two story condo (hers in a single floor condo). How long do you think it will take before I can return to my home. An air test showed moderate levels of acetone and ethanol.

    • Ian Cull February 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

      @Dawn,

      There are too many variables to give a specific timeframe. I am based in Chicago and could potentially check out the condo. You can reach me at the office at 312-920-9393 if you are interested.

      Ian

  8. Michelle Cullins September 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    I was also interested in any information you might have concerining the VOC’s in mattresses. We want to get our twelve year old a new mattress and are concerned. Thank you.

    Michelle

    • Ian Cull September 17, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

      @Michelle,

      I recently came across this article which shows erroneous “no VOC” claims on mattresses: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2013/07/mattress.shtm

      I haven’t researched mattresses for a while, so I’m not up on the latest. I know there are natural latex based ones, but I don’t have first hand experience. My biggest concern with mattresses are flame retardants, which often mimic hormones and disrupt the endocrine system.

      Will you post here which mattress option you select? It may be helpful to others in the same situation.

      Regards,

      Ian

      • Mic March 1, 2015 at 11:41 am #

        Hello,
        Just came across this site in search of information regarding a freshly painted house.

        I was very concerned about mattresses and ended up investing in cocomat – they are made in greece and are all natural. I also bought a mattress from natural mat company in England but they have branches in USA. They use natural wool for the fire safety part of it
        I hope that helps.

  9. Jen October 13, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    Per the ‘voc’s in mattresses, I’m a homeopathic doctor and treat chemical sensitivities. It’s not ‘VOC’s’ that you should research, it’s PBDE’s (polybrominated biphenyl ethers). The flame retardant chemicals they put on mattresses. I’ve seen people in the hospital from a new mattress and from new furniture in general due to off gassing from PBDE’s. Hope that helps:) Thanks for your article on VOC’s too. Education is the first step – people need to understand their options. Blessings!

  10. Amy November 1, 2013 at 4:50 am #

    We are painting our stairwells, just the treads with VOC paint. One is right outside my 4 month old’s bedroom. Should I be worried? Am going to keep her out of the house for a couple hours after the painting is done. Enough? When can she go in her room?

    • Ian Cull November 1, 2013 at 6:48 am #

      There are too many variables to say precisely how high the levels are, or how long it will take for them to dissipate. Without instrumentation, you can only rely on your nose to detect it. At a minimum, I would have all the windows open and keep her away until the paint is totally dry.

  11. Charity November 6, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    Hello! My office has created new “Mother’s Lounges” for pumping mothers. They are beautiful with new vinyl tile floors, paint, furnishings (and mini-fridge). The problem is the odor is incredibly strong. After using the room twice yesterday, I felt a bit nauseous and had a head ache so I began to do some research which led me here.I am going to contact Facilities and HR regarding the problem but also want to offer a solution.

    The room is perhaps 5’x7′ with no fresh air. The door stays closed. (I propped open the door and put a fan in the doorway but someone removed it and shut the door by the time I came back).

    Would an industrial fan – on over a weekend with the door open (to the office – not fresh air) help? Would an air purifier help?

    Thank you.

    • Ian Cull November 7, 2013 at 11:28 am #

      Charity,

      The easiest solution is to open a window, but that doesn’t sound like an option. How close is the closest window? Could a fan blow outdoor air into the room? If not, you’ll need to look for a “gas-phase” air cleaner. These use granular activated carbon and other sorbent media to physically remove VOCs from the air. There are other options as well, such as chemisorption and photocatalytic oxidation (PCO).

      Regards,
      Ian

  12. Hallie McGrath December 12, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    Hi Ian,
    I bought a Tempurpedic mattress…horrible off gassing…two year old vomiting every night…had removed within 10 days…bought two chemical air purifiers…Austin Health mate plus…running both in bedroom with doors shut…how long until I can open the door…I also experienced memory problems,. sore throat…kids stomach problems…afraid to open the door…also aired out room for a while before I received the purifiers…
    Thanks Hallie

  13. Jennifer January 25, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Hi,

    I had asked my countertop guys to use an eco adhesive…but it seems that they didn’t. So mad! Anyways, I’m pregnant and have a 3 year old. Do you have any information about indoor plants or biochar being able to help clean the air in the kitchen. What about air purifiers. About to freak out here!

    Thanks!
    Jennifer

    • Ian Cull January 27, 2014 at 11:54 am #

      @Jennifer,

      Probably one of the cheapest and most effective approaches will be to ventilate the area with open windows. Facilitate the ventilation with some fans. I’m not sure where you are located, but it is 0 degrees F in Chicago today, so having windows open might not be much of an option. Where are you located? Forget plants, there are some gas-phase air cleaners but they are very expensive. Open windows actually does a great job compared to all other technologies. The only thing better is not putting in the VOCs in the first place! (Sorry to rub it in).

      Ian

      • Jennifer January 28, 2014 at 7:41 am #

        Hi Ian,

        We are in Austin…and it was warm the installation day and the two days after…so what we did was to ventilate the entire house, placed a fan facing outside in the kitchen. At night sealed off the kitchen with plastic and aired it out (two doors to outside/garage in kitchen) and didn’t use the heating system those nights. Yesterday it got cold, not like Chicago, but cold and so I purchased more plants, and so we had a total of 12 small and large plants in there; shut off heating vent to kitchen, sealed it with plastic, but couldn’t ventilate overnight. The smell has dissipated more.. but again…will they be offgassing for years to come??!! How come you don’t like plants…are they really that ineffective?
        Thanks.

  14. Robyn Vernick January 29, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi Ian,
    We live in York, PA…summer of 2012 we had new carpet installed in our 2,000 sq/ft finished basement. A couple of months later I began experiencing skin irritation, itching, etc; 8 mths later I finally figured out that my health issues were related to the carpet off-gassing. We ventilated with fans, open windows, etc. with no relief of symptoms. I installed a REME 305 (hydroperoxide/UV light technology) in my HVAC system….no help. Recently I purchased an Airocide® which we are told needs to run for several weeks prior to seeing results. I purchased over 30 plants the other day too.
    Very cold here, so currently unable to keep windows open while my symptoms continue to evolve….red, itchy skin, primarily the skin that is exposed to the air. I have tested my air and while we have moderate levels of VOC’s related to cleaning products, I’m not sure there was adequate testing conducted for carpet-related VOC’s. BTW, when I leave my home I do not experience the symptoms I’ve described.
    Any suggestions?

  15. deby February 1, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Hi,
    Came across your site while trying to figure out paint odor problem. I have a design build firm in Mi. Work in Chicago a lot. Finally painted my own home which had needed it for some time. Used Benjamin Moore Aura low VOC paint in matte through most of the house, Advance for trim, and Aura Bath and Spa in bathrooms. The smell in the bathrooms was almost indiscernible in the beginning and now three weeks later is worse and worse. I can smell odor if I smell wall itself. Don’t know what to do. Never had smell develop after paint is dry.I’m very sensitive to odors and concerned about what could be happening. Any help would be so greatly appreciated.

  16. Christie February 3, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    Very glad I stumbled across this website. I thought I was the only one having so much trouble with indoor air/sensitivities. I moved into a new apartment and had the walls painted with zero VOC paint, as I’m very sensitive to chemicals (sherwin Williams Harmony). I am reacting very strongly to something after moving in. My chest becomes tight and I have horrible airway irritation every time I go into my apartment. I am now not living there, and waiting for it to subside. I’m wondering if the paint could be the problem (it’s been a month) or that the unit the floor above me was competent renovated with new hardwood floors. How long should it take to subside? My boyfriend has been airing it out on warmer days. Is there anything else I can do or an easy way to test levels?

    Thank you!

    Christie

  17. johny longshot October 16, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    I am a recycler of building materials. Is it safe to say that a laminate flooring that has been in a home for a year or more has likely finished off gassing or will off gas very little at that point?

  18. Ron December 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Hi Ian, thank you for providing us with your helpful information.
    My wife and I have our first baby due in 3 months. I just started prepping the baby room for painting. I bought no VOC paint. But after scraping the one corner of the ceiling that had some loose paint I found stained and chalky dark mold. The area is about 3 feet long by 3 inches wide right along the crease between the ceiling and the wall. With the advice of a contractor friend, I used bleach and water and Tilex to clean it. I then used a shellac based primer, stain blocker by Bin. I have the windows open as well as a fan and will for as long as it takes to clear the smell but my question is will painting over this with the no VOC paint help eliminate the VOC or should I let it dissipate on its own first then paint over it?

    Thanks so much!

    • Ian Cull December 6, 2014 at 6:42 am #

      I have heard anecdotally that some paints can lock down high VOC paints, but I don’t think it has ever been independently tested, pier reviewed, and published. Many people mention AFM Safecoat for that purpose, but I don’t know.

  19. KC February 19, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    We are doing renovations after a flood – everything was torn out and being replaced new. I had asked for no VOC primer and paint but they started with a low VOC primer. Today they put on the zero VOC primer, and wow, can I see the difference. The first one was AquaLock Plus, it looks AMAZINg and it’s <50 VOC g/l. The other was the Benjamin Moore no VOC. I have a small child and I'd like our air quality to be good – do you think it's a mistake to go with the AquaLock?

  20. Nicole L May 3, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    If a house was recently redone and they used paint loaded with VOCs, if you repaint the walls with non-VOC paint and sand/repaint all the cabinets/doors/trim with non-VOC paint, will this eliminate/trap in the VOCs from the paint?

    • Ian Cull May 27, 2015 at 9:15 am #

      @Nicole,

      There is plenty anecdotal evidence of encapsulation of high-VOC paint. However, I have not come across any peer-reviewed scientific literature that substantiates these claims. Tread carefully.

      Regards,
      Ian

  21. K. Castillo May 25, 2015 at 1:31 am #

    How long should I wait before moving small pets back into a room that was just recently carpeted?

    • Ian Cull May 27, 2015 at 9:18 am #

      @K.Castillo,

      There are too many variables to come up with a strict timeframe. Keep windows open and in the absence of fancy instruments that I have, you can always use your nose. Your nose won’t tell you the exact concentration but it can tell you the relative abundance. Hopefully the odors will go away and indicate an improvement.

      Ian

  22. Hello23 May 26, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    Hi Ian, Our contractor painted our house with non low VOC paint, even though I had discussed this with him from the begging. It’s pretty hot in the house but I managed to keep the AC off the whole day. Will I be able to turn the AC on soon? Im afraid turning it on will bring fumes into our house and we have two small children. How bad is exterior paint that is not low VOC? How long until it stops offgasing? Thank you so much!

    • Ian Cull May 27, 2015 at 9:21 am #

      @Hello23

      Exterior paint generally has higher VOCs. Most air conditioning systems do not have an outdoor air intake… they merely recirculate the air. Therefore, running your air conditioning shouldn’t have a major influence on the amount of outdoor air being pulled in. Does your AC system have an outdoor air intake?

      Ian

  23. Millie June 17, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Hello. Over Memorial Day weekend we pulled out our 9 yr old rugs and put in Trafficmaster laminated flooring. For the past 2 weeks I have been experiencing first nasal issue and that went away and now I have a sore throat. I went to the doctor and was placed on antibiotics but am going back tonight as I am not feeling any relief. So I did some research and am now really scared that it is the flooring. I feel no relief when I am away from the house so I’m not sure if it is the flooring or if I have something else or if I have been exposed so long that i’m not feeling any relief now. Anyway, the air conditioner is on all the time as we are in Florida. Do you recommend opening the windows and airing out the place? I’ve done it before but by 9am it is over 90 degrees outside and it is unbearable. Anyway, does the heat bring off gasing more due to the humidity? What do you recommend? I seem to be the only one experiencing this and my family thinks I am crazy. :) Help!

    • Ian Cull June 18, 2015 at 9:31 am #

      @Millie,

      You would be surprised how well opening windows works. I was in a home last week where levels were at 15,000 µg/m3 in an upstairs bedroom recently remodelled and dropped to 800 after having windows throughout the home only slightly (there were young children and the had window locks).

      Here’s the caveat… when the windows were closed again for 24 hours, the levels went back up over 12,000. So the point is… open the windows and keep them open!

      Ian
      VOC Testing in Chicago

  24. Bonnie August 17, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Hello. I am buying a commercial building & found it had a dry cleaning service in the 1960’s. I am wondering if there’s any reason for concern. Thank you.

  25. Greg August 25, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

    Hi, I recently did something very stupid. I sprayed raid in the wall around a pipe and inside a fixture attached to the wall and have had the raid smell and some VOC symptoms for 45 days now. I sprayed in my kitchen but somehow the raid fumes/odors made their way to an upstairs bedroom, how long would this off gas? I sprayed a few times not a large quantity, it feels like I am more sensitive now. I am using fans, and have had the windows open for a month now. I really dont want to break into the walls and remove the drywall where I sprayed around the drain pipe. The asbestos might be something thats in the walls so I am trying the ventilation approach first. Thanks for having a forum like this!

  26. Bob Baillie August 25, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

    I can open a couple of windows put a window fan in one of them. Is it better to have the fan blowing in, or out, Or does it make any difference?

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  1. Green Construction: What You Should Know About VOCs in your Home Improvement Project | Moss Architecture - December 22, 2014

    […] Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) consultant, discusses those lingering effects in a blog post “How long does it take for VOCs to dissipate?”   Its hard to predict exactly how long VOCs will linger in your house after you […]

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