Is Your Furniture Polluting The Air Inside Your Home?

If we’re out and about in the center of a busy city with lots of traffic whizzing past we might expect the air we’re breathing to be somewhat unhealthy.

But when we get back home most of us probably think that our indoor air will be clean and free of contaminants, right?

That was certainly what I used to think anyway, and it would never have crossed my mind that seemingly-innocent everyday items could be causing a build-up of toxic air inside my home.

What Types of Pollutants Can Be Found Indoors?

There are many different things which can contaminate our indoor air and make it less healthy.  Some of these we’re already aware of, like cigarette smoke, mold spores, pet dander or pollen. 

But many people probably won’t have heard of something called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

VOCs are gases that are emitted into the air from processes or products.  This release is sometimes referred to as ‘off-gassing’.

These organic chemical compounds have a high enough vapour pressure to evaporate into the atmosphere at room temperature.  Some are considered harmful in themselves, while others may react with other gases to create air pollutants.

VOCs are emitted from a variety of different sources, particularly items which are artificially scented such as air fresheners, candles, perfumes and cleaning products.

But it might surprise you to learn that they can also be given off by certain types of furniture, furnishings and floor coverings.

This is due to some of the different processes and products used in their manufacture, such as adhesives, paints and varnishes.

Why Should We Be Concerned About VOCs?

But do we really need to be concerned about the presence of VOCs in our indoor environments?

Well, there’s a growing body of medical research into the potentially negative effects of indoor air pollution on our health, and the World Health Organisation now considers it to be a real threat to the health of millions of people worldwide.

Typical symptoms associated with exposure to VOC emissions include:

  • eye, nose and throat irritations
  • headaches
  • migraines
  • dizziness
  • nausea

It’s also believed that exposure to high concentrations of some types of VOCs can affect your central nervous system or cause cancer and depression.

People who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, asthma or allergies may also find their conditions worsened as a result of breathing in these chemical cocktails.

In the case of the top 10 chemicals emitted from furnishings, 4 of these are considered to be acute hazards or irritants.

And it can even take up to a staggering 6 months for the vaporised chemicals in some compounds to dissipate.

With estimates that many of us now spend up to 90% of our time each day indoors there’s the potential for a lot of unpleasant stuff going into our lungs and bodies without us even realising it.

Certification Programs to Help Consumers Make Informed Choices

Knowledge is the key to improving the quality of the air inside our homes and workplaces.

As there’s no legal obligation on manufacturers to state what chemicals they use in their furniture it can often be difficult – if not impossible! – for us to know exactly what we’re buying.

But the good news is that there are now several certification programs to help consumers looking for products with lower VOC emissions.

One such program, for example, is run by a company called Greenguard, a division of UL Environment.

They conduct rigorous testing and award their certification mark to products designed for indoor use which emit low or no levels of hazardous chemicals.

More and more companies nowadays are becoming more savvy to the desires of environmentally-conscious consumers, and are beginning to adapt their manufacturing processes in a bid to move away from the overuse of potentially harmful chemicals.

A little bit of time spent doing some research before making a purchase for your home can give you some peace of mind that you’ve gone for the healthiest possible option, so do look for these standards of independent recognition if this is something you’re concerned about.

6 Top Tips to Minimise Your Exposure to VOCs

Of course, it may not always be possible to completely avoid VOCs, but there are several things you can do to minimise your exposure to them and create a healthier home or work interior:

1. Air Out

If at all possible, unwrap and allow any new furniture or carpets to air outdoors for at least a week before bringing them in to their new location indoors.

Similarly, hang any items of clothing which have been dry cleaned outside for a period of time before hanging in your wardrobe to allow the cleaning chemicals to ‘off-gas’.

2. Paint Your Home BEFORE Furnishing It

If you’re undertaking a home renovation project, try to paint the walls before laying any new carpets or flooring, or installing furniture or curtains. 

That’s because furnishings and fabrics can absorb chemical fumes from the paint and then release them back into the atmosphere.

Also, schedule any painting or varnishing jobs for the warmer/drier months of the year when you can leave your windows and doors open for extended periods of time to allow emissions to escape.

3. Choose ‘Healthier’ Paints

Also on the subject of paint, look for brands which are specifically labelled as producing low emissions, or choose one which is water-based.

There’s a good range to choose from nowadays so you should be able to find one that’s kinder to both your health and the environment, without sacrificing on quality or choice of color/finish.

Also, only buy enough for the job in hand, and don’t store any unused paint indoors – try to place in an outdoor shed or lockup if possible.

4. Give Secondhand Furniture A New Lease of Life

Instead of automatically going for a brand new item when you want something for your home, look to see if there’s a secondhand alternative that you could recycle.

New furniture can double the amount of emissions in your home, whereas older furniture which has ‘off-gassed’ over a period of time will give off significantly less.

Older furniture also has the advantage of being more sturdy than some modern counterparts.  Many pieces of modern furniture are made from something called particleboard – also known as MDF, engineered wood or pressed wood.

In addition to being flimsier than traditional wood items, particleboard has also been singled out by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as being particularly prone to emitting formaldehyde – a probable carcinogen.

A small caveat to note, however, when buying used furniture – always check to see whether the item in question meets current safety standards, and avoid painted furniture which predates 1978 as paint from before this date may contain lead.

5. Switch to Natural Cleaning Products

Chemically-packed cleaning products are a major source of VOC emissions in the home.

Try making your own natural alternatives using some cheap and readily available ingredients – we have another article with lots of suggestions for you.

Or if you’re short on time you could always try replacing them with pre-made non-toxic cleaning products – I especially like the Puracy range found on Amazon.

6. Invest in an Air Purifier

Air purifiers are devices which work by sucking in the air inside a room, cleaning that air through a series of filters, and blowing ‘clean’ air back out.

Our Complete Buyers Guide has all the information you need on air purifiers, but essentially if you want to tackle VOCs in your home go for one which has a HEPA filter and a carbon filter.

HEPA filters tackle microscopic polluted particles and can help to remove a whole host of things from your indoor air, such as smoke, mold spores, viruses and pollen.

Carbon filters absorb unpleasant odors and also some gases and emissions, such as those given off by volatile organic compounds.

There’s a great range of air purifiers on the market today for use in domestic properties, and you should easily find one that best fits with your own preferences and budget.

Show me some great air purifiers!

Conclusion

It seems almost laughable that our comfy new sofa or snazzy, shiny flooring could be toxifying the air inside our homes.

But the reality is that there are a multitude of different things which can be clogging it up with pollutants, without us even realising it.

Becoming aware of these different pollutants and taking steps – even small ones – to minimise our exposure to them can make a big difference to our health, and create that safe sanctuary that we all would like our homes to be.

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