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.

26 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

  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?

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