Reducing VOCs

Yesterday I received a call from a homeowner concerned about volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  After using an epoxy resin (and other VOC-laden building materials), the odors in the home were very strong and his wife stared showing signs of sensitivities.  Fast forward a year and now his wife has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (although I prefer the term “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance or TILT).  They are trying to stay away from the home as much as possible, putting them in a very difficult position.

Here is my general advice:

#1. It’s always best to prevent the problem in the first place by using low VOC products.  These used to be very difficult to find, but now they everywhere.  You really have no excuse for using high emitting products.  For the homeowner’s situation, this advice didn’t help because he already installed all the materials and was unwilling to gut the place (I don’t blame him).

#2. The second best option is outdoor air ventilation.  Unless you live in a really polluted area, VOCs are lower outdoors than indoors.  By introducing outdoor air, it will dilute down the concentration of VOCs indoors.  In coming blog posts, I’ll talk about how to best ventilate.  For some climates, this can simply be accomplished by having your windows open.  The homeowner has done this and has seen a 10 times reduction in the VOC levels.

#3. The final option is to use gas phase air cleaners.  This is the best option when outdoor air isn’t suitable for ventilation.  A few years ago I was teaching a class outside of Mumbai, India and I can say with confidence than outdoor air ventilation would probably make matters worse. (I didn’t see the sun at all during the trip… blocked out by the haze).  For most applications in the US, this is the most expensive approach and yet not the most effective.  In later blog posts I’ll describe what are these “gas phase air cleaners”.

Unfortunately, the homeowner’s wife is still experiencing chemical sensitivities even though the VOC levels are back to the US home average.  If I may borrow from Karl Popper, IAQ projects are either like a Clock or a Cloud.  Some projects are Clocks: well defined and everything makes sense.  Other projects are Clouds: nebulous and not well understood.

This is definitely is a Cloud.

31 thoughts on “Reducing VOCs

  1. Thanks Ian. This blog is a great way to learn about what other IAQ professionals are encountering in the field.

  2. We hired a painter to remove wallpaper from our son’s bedroom and paint it. We are very emotionally sensitive to chemicals as my wife has had cancer- so we live as chemically free as possible. We chose the Benjamin Moore Natura paint for it’s no VOC rating.
    We had the work done while we were on spring break so as not to have any exposure.
    When we returned, the smell was intense.
    The painter had decided to use an oil based primer (Zinnser Allprime interior/exterior primer).
    He then painted after 1 hour-one coat of Natura.
    We have not let our son back in the room since then. We have had all windows open, 2 fans going 27/7, doors open for cross ventilation and now 2 weeks later the smell is starting to dissipate. However it is still detectable after 2 weeks.
    The painter was very sorry and wants to “do whatever it takes to make it right”. He’s a good guy who made a bad decision.
    He’s offered to rent an air scrubber for us, sand the walls down and redo with only the Natura, or top coat with AFM Safecoat. He’s also suggesting having the room tested for VOC as he doesn’t think it’s “that bad”.
    My wife thinks we should take down the drywall and start over.
    My question- will the room EVER be chemically free of VOCs for our son to sleep and nap there 10-15 hours per day if we don’t gut the room? Will time and ventilation heal the problem completely?
    What should we have the painter do at this point, if anything?
    Thanks

    1. @Paul,
      I would recommend a VOC test prior to doing anything drastic, such as ripping out all the drywall. Eventually ventilation, time and warm weather will reduce the off-gassing. Although I have heard good things about AFM Safecoat, I prefer to base decisions on peer-reviewed research, rather than anecdotal evidence. If you do a VOC test, let me know what results you get. Where are you located?

  3. Hello Ian, thanks for the useful info above
    – I just moved into a newly decorated flat, and am very affected by the fumes from both the gloss, and also even the water-based matt paint on the walls. I’m surprised by the strength of the latter – it has a strange sweet, very chemical smell.
    I’m keeping windows open etc, but I’m hoping to find a way to make it habitable and healthy as soon as possible –
    I’m considering sanding it all off – not sure it this will work?
    But have also come across paints which claim to clean the air ( apparently used I’m the Louvre) – these include ‘air purifying’ paints by Healthy House, and Ecos Organic paint, which claim to remove around 90% of toxins in air (!) – including from previous paint.
    Also Boysen KNOxOUT paint seems to make similar claims.
    Do you have any knowledge /experience of these? They are very expensive –
    Many thanks –

    1. @Claire,

      Most of the air purifying paints target a specific gas. For example, Boysen KNOxOUT targets nitrogen oxides. Others target formaldehyde. The problem is that there are over a hundred different common indoor air quality contaminants and gases. No one paint could target them all.

      With my instruments, I see good results by ventilating the space. That can be done with open windows or if you wanted to buy something, check out a small “energy recovery ventilator”. I would try those options before the “nuclear” option of sanding all the paint off the walls.

      Regards,
      Ian

  4. Hello again

    Thanks very much for above advice.
    Unfortunately it’s now been 3 months since the initial paint job, and despite ventilating thoroughly every day, – all windows and doors open whenever I’m home – the odour – fumes – are still very persistent. I develop a sore throat and stinging eyes within an hour in the flat if the windows aren’t open.

    The update is that I’ve discovered this is a well documented problem in the UK – particularly with Crown paints – which is what was used in my flat –
    There have been numerous complaints – and a BBC watchdog investigation.

    The official line Crown are giving is that this is something called ‘wall odour phenomenon’ –
    It’s claimed that this is not fully understood – but is an occasional interaction with some walls, possibly down to bacteria in the walls. –

    The recommendation is to cover it initially with an alkali resistant sealer, and then another coat of normal emulsion paint.

    I’m wondering whether you know anything about ‘wall odour phenomenon ‘ –

    And I’m reluctant to use a standard ‘alkali resistant sealer – I’ve looked up the spec sheet, and it’s extremely high in VOCs –
    But would these evaporate off quickly, and leave the air quality ok after a month or so?

    Are there any effective alternatives?

    The only one I’m aware of is Safecoat hardseal – which is not sold in the UK –
    Perhaps it’s worth the additional time, cost and hassle to ship it in?

    Many thanks –

    1. @Claire,
      Sorry for the delay in responding. I’m not familiar with “wall odour phenomenon”. I would be reluctant to bring more VOCs into the space. The idea of coating a high VOC paint with a low VOC paint has much anecdotal evidence, but I don’t know if any independent studies that have verified those claims.

      Remember that colorants can introduce VOCs into an otherwise no-VOC paint.

      Ian

  5. We just bought a home and have had the entire home painted with Dunn Williiams zero voc paint. We are also having quick step laminate floors installed. I didn’t think about the primer, which probably isn’t VOC. How long do you think we should wait before returning to the home? We live in California, so luckily we will have fans on and windows open. Thank you.

    1. @Elisa,

      The best way to know when to return home is with a measurement of VOCs. The second best way is to use the odor as a guide. The strength of odor can give you a rough idea if the VOCs are dissipating. More than measurements and odor, let your body be the guide. For example… If you start to feel headaches in the home and they clear up whenever you are away, you shouldn’t return just yet.

      Let me know how it goes.

      Ian

  6. Ian, we just had our driveway redone, not sure if coal tar was used or not, but regardless the odor was there for 2 weeks. The odor has dissipated, is it safe to open the windows again? I also bought a few heap air purifiers, will this help if they run continuously?

    1. Maryann,

      HEPA filters remove particles out of the air and don’t really target odors, gases or VOCs. See my comments to Elisa regarding using odors as a guide.

      Another thing to mention is that individual sensitivity is an important variable. Maryann, you may be fine with the very low level of VOCs remaining. But someone else may have big problems with even that low level.

      If you don’t have many sensitivities to air quality contaminants, things may be ok.

      Ian

  7. Hi, Ian,

    Thank you for providing such helpful resources! FloorScore certified sheet vinyl was just installed throughout the apartment I rent. It contains phthalates, and I want to minimize exposure. Your video about SVOCs was very helpful. I originally considered applying AFM Safecoat, but given my understanding that this has not been tested for its ability to limit phthalate exposure, I’m not sure that this is the best option. I’ve considered (a) AFM Safecoat application, (b) ventilation, and (c) wet mopping the floor frequently to minimize exposure to SVOCs bound to dust. What do you think is the best way to minimize exposure to phthalates (or any low-level VOCs) in this case? Thank you very much for your help!

    1. @Shannon,
      There isn’t much peer reviewed research for controlling phthalates, but I suspect that keeping the dust levels down is the most important. For example, both wet mopping and swiffer cleaning would remove most dust (and the SVOCs adsorbed to its surface). Of course, ventilation is good for the more volatile chemicals that will come off fresh vinyl flooring.

      Ian

  8. I’m not seeing anything specific to this issue, but perhaps you can point me to another post that talks about mitigating VOCs from furniture? I am an early childhood teacher and am generally very careful about what I put in my classroom since the children and I spend so much time there. I am very concerned about the indoor air quality.

    I recently ordered a custom piece furniture and made a poor assumption based on the ethos of the seller that they would use a low or no VOC, water-based finish. It turns out they used a polyurethane gloss (Minwax), and the odor is so strong that I can’t even bring myself to take the piece indoors. It has been outside for two days, and I still smell it the moment I open the door. I cannot return the piece and I could really use it in the classroom, so I’m trying to work out what to do – is it logical to sand and refinish the wood? I imagine the wood has absorbed a good bit of the finish, and the dust from sanding is not something I want to expose myself to or that I want to release into the outdoor environment. Would using another finish on top of the polyurethane gloss be of any benefit? I’m grateful for any suggestions!

  9. I contracted with a kitchen cabinet dealer to resurface my cabinet. He advertise as being well made maple doors. I told him that I am sensitive to chemical and want to make sure that they use no VOC paint. He first said that they don’t offer that. I researched and find one low VOC. They accept to use it however the doors will come from the factory with “regular” paint. He show me a sample and there was no odor. He said that they will be paint long before and will not have any smell as they install them. I had my resurfacing done this past Thursday/Friday. Thursday went well with Low VOC. Friday was a disaster! The doors were wrap in Saran Wrap about 4 together. As soon as they open the first one my throat started to scratch then my eyes then headache then dizziness! I panic some. Knowing that will have major problem and I have! I live in Central Florida West Coast. All my windows are open, 3 small fans are running, I have 4 Ivy plants on the counter, and a large bowl of vinegor there to. The vapor is extremely strong. I cannot get an answer from the Co who did the job to know what exactly is that paint. I was ridiculized as being a “Lunatic”! They refuse to do anything about it. This was very costly but at this point I cannot use my Kitchen at all and I am sick. There’s is no place for me to go to. What can I do? Please

  10. Hi,

    My husband just built us a lovely new bed to match the bedroom furniture my father built for me years ago. He used wood that my father had cut down, milled, and dried before he passed away. In hopes of making a good match, he used the same brand of lacquer finish that my dad used to use – Varathane oil based clear finish. Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought that through with regards to chemicals… The smell is quite strong. How long can we expect that to last, and do you have any suggestions for us? ( Ironically, we built the new bed to accommodate a high end organic mattress in order to avoid the chemicals in regular mattresses!) Oops!

    Trish

  11. Hi! Thank you for the information. I had a bedroom created from oversized closet in my bedroom for my 1 and 2 year olds. We used box free products, but the guy went ahead and used an oil based polyurethane finish when we thought he was just cleaning it. We had him completely close of the room and sand it off. We left it closed for over a month with a top of the line Voc air filter on nonstop and windows open most of the time. Then we opened it during the day, opening the doors and windows in the main bedroom it is off of too for a week. Even though we closed it off at night when we were in the main bedroom, I started to get sick. So I stopped and waited another month and a half. Now, three months after the construction ended, it still smells horrible. I don’t know what to do. Should we repaint the walls? Put voc free finish on the floor? We’ve cleaned the walls and floor many times and had the filter on constantly. Thank you, I’d really appreciate advice.

  12. I have some questions that I haven’t seen answered anywhere that I’m hoping will intrique you enough to answer on here. It relates to wetsuits, VOC emissions, and indoor air quality.

    I recently bought a wetsuit and after rinsing it I let it air dry in my bedroom on a clothes airer. The room filled with this pungent smell that I’ve now identified as VOC off-gassing from the polychloroprene (i.e. neoprene). What I’ve managed to find online suggests this off-gassing may have formeldahyde, toluene, chlorine dioxide, lead oxide, butadiene, and the monomer chloroprene (though I have no idea which is responsible for the pungent quality to the odor).

    Whatever off-gassed has stuck to everything in the room – metal, paint, cotton – and is extremely difficult to get rid of. The suit is now dry, sealed in a bag which is stored in a box with cat litter in the bottom of it (which doesn’t have this smell building up in any detectable concentrations to my nose) and in a different room (which also does not smell this way), and when my room is cool it doesn’t smell. But! When the temperature of part of the room goes up (say after a night of sleeping there), the smell is alive and ‘kicking’ around the room again for a long time. I cannot tell from where the VOCs are really desorping as nothing obvious is emitting this odor when the room is at a cooler temperature.

    So my questions are these:
    1) What can I do to remove the VOCs that appear to already have become established in my room from this single incident of drying my wetsuit in there? (As I feel that the quality of air in there is highly suspect now and I don’t fancy breathing in unknown quantities of this stuff while I sleep)

    2) For how long do wetsuits tend to off-gass VOCs, and in what quantities?

    3) Is there anything that I can do to the wetsuit to speed its off-gassing somewhere else (maybe out doors…say by rinsing it and drying it a lot or using wetsuit shampoo or using some other chemical to prompt off-gassing)?

  13. we just rented an apt. with new carpeting.
    every time I have gone in before moving, my eyes begin to sting….there is a strong sweet chemical odor.
    I do have chemical sensitivity.
    we are now heating up the apt. to 88degrees and trying to bake gassed.
    also having carpet cleaned with just very hot water.
    then plan to ventilate well.
    also bought two iq purifiers…….any thoughts?

  14. Hello Ian, your page is very interesting, thank you! We are in process of doing home renovations and are considering LVT flooring for kitchen area (eg. Gerflor brand) – but have come across much adverse discussion online of VOCs from vinyl flooring and are concerned. When a company advertises low VOC for vinyl flooring that says it complies with various regulations (eg. <100 m/m3 TVOC after 28 days) is that level actually low enough not to have adverse effects on health? Do LVT planks themselves release the VOCs? Or is it just the adhesive for them? Do the VOCs continue offgassing for the entire lifetime of the product? Or do they dissipate after a certain period of time? Sorry for all the questions but I can't find this specific information from my online searching!
    We live in Ireland so plenty opportunity for opening windows and fresh air! We have a nearly 2 year old and I am 6 months pregnant.
    Many thanks in advance, anna

  15. Ian,

    We just purchased a home that is about 16 years old. The owners had cats and both my son and I are severely allergic. When we pulled up the carpet (which was original to the house) and saw marks on the plywood under the areas where we had seen stains on the carpet where the cats were kept. A friend had suggested using an antibacterial on the plywood and then covering it with Kilz. We tried the Kilz in one room and the fumes were awful! We found out that there was an odorless Kilz product and finished applying it in the remainder of the house just before we had new pad and carpet laid. Although it was “odorless” there is still a bad smell in the house. I’ve seen a number of ideas online to remove the smell but now I am concerned about the remaining VOCs. Do you have any suggestions to make our house as safe and healthy as possible? Thank you…

    1. Keep your windows open as much as possible, especially if your HVAC system doesn’t bring in fresh air. If that’s the case, talk to a mechanical contractor about installing equipment to allow you to bring in outdoor air ventilation.

  16. I have a desk I put a few layers of Watco Danish oil on. I was surprised AFTER applying it to see on the back it said max 450 voc. Seems high.
    In any case, I’m going to leave the windows open and the fan on in that room… I’m considering buying a fan to put on the windowsill… but my question would it be better to have it push air out of the house, or bring air inside?
    There are two windows, I suppose I could do one in and one out? Would that help to reduce any VOCs in that room?

    I haven’t really had any symptoms, except the night I was applying it my right eye became bloodshot and irritated. I didn’t think it was the fumes until later.

    Also I’m considering getting a new desk and finish with a lower VOC product. Would that even matter or is the “damage” already done?

    Thanks!

  17. Hi!! Thanks for your thoughtful posts! I have been researching to find an answer so I am finally just going to try writing you … just got epoxy floors in garage. I’m very sensitive. I can smell it indoors. Nobody else claims too. I’m worried about sleeping in the house with our two young children. Their bedrooms are closest to the garage. Do you know how much the fumes travel?

  18. Hi Ian,

    My husband and I just bought a brand new construction house. Zero VOC paint throughout the house, hardwood floors, tiles in the bathrooms.

    The house smells very strong. It makes my husband dizzy and gives him a trouble breathing to the point we needed to rent an apartment in the meantime.

    We live in Atlanta, GA where the humidity level is very high and so far the temperature doesn’t go below 80 degrees. We keep the windows open, all ceiling fans running plus several extra free standing, AC off.

    It’s been a month since we’ve been airing the house but it’s still unlivable.

    Is there anything else we can do?

    How long do you think until we will be able to move in?

    1. @Marta,

      I suggest you do a VOC home test kit like “Home Air Check”. You can do one now, and again after a few weeks of aggressive airing out. That should give you a good indication if you are making progress.

      Ian

  19. Hi Ian. I am getting ready to move out of my apartment and into a van. When I do the conversion I want to do it as green as possible and also in a way that won’t turn the van into a rust & mold breeding ground. Most people who are doing the VAN-LIFE thing are using fiberglass and foam for insulation and it is just not the route I want to go. It seems like the insulation part of the build is the most risky as far as VOC’s and toxicity go. The rest is pretty straight forward… using green alternatives for adhesives and making smart choices with what wood you use for bed frame etc. I was wondering if you had any recommendations for safe materials I could use to insulate with.

    appreciate any feedback I get, thank you for your time!

  20. Hi Ian,

    We just had a guy seal our basement concrete. Unfortunately rather than consulting us on what he was going to use and making sure that it was a correct interior-use product, he used a high-voc xyelene based product. It’s been 2.5 weeks since we’ve been able to live there. According to the manufacturers data it should have been fully dry and cured and stopped off-gassing after just a few days (thought the technical data sheets say 2 hrs) but it seems to keep going. Have you had any experience with this kind of thing? We have been venting the basement and the upstairs of the house continually but it seems refuse to go away. Do you know if there is something we could cover up the sealant with? The manufacturer said definitely not to have our son in the house while the product is still curing, but that seems to be a nebulous amount of time.

    1. @Jessie,
      I’m not aware of a product that could go over the sealant to trap it in. Have you tried heating up the basement to facilitate the off-gassing process? You could consider adding an air cleaner with a hefty amount of granular activated carbon. Normally that’s not my first recommendation, but it may help some.

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