Sensitivity to Odors and Fumes
by Arnie Katz
Q: I mentioned to my builder that I'm somewhat sensitive to odors and fumes. He suggested using "Low VOC" paints and finishes in the house. This will add to the cost, but if it will really help me, I'm willing to pay extra. What exactly does "Low VOC" mean? And is it worth it?
A: VOC stands for "Volatile Organic Compound," which refers to a whole bunch of chemicals that turn into a vapor and "off-gas" into the air. Common VOCs include the vapors given off by paints and varnishes, petroleum products like kerosene and gasoline, pesticides, glues, cleaning products, building products, and furnishings.
Some VOCs, such as formaldehyde, are known to cause serious health problems. Many are simply annoying or irritating. Whether something is actually harmful or is merely annoying depends on several factors, including how much of the substance there is, how long it continues to off-gas into the air you're breathing, what other substances are in the air which may mix with it, and how sensitive your immune system is to that particular substance or combination.
There are thousands of chemicals currently in our homes for which research has never been done. It is unlikely that research will ever be done on all the possible combinations.
Before you can determine whether "Low VOC" paints and finishes will be helpful to you, there are a few questions you need to ask. First, just how sensitive are you? When you walk into a freshly painted room, do you get violently ill or mildly dizzy? Do you have symptoms if you walk into a room that was painted three days ago? A week ago? A month? Getting a handle on what you're sensitive to, and to what extent, will help you make smarter choices.
Second, are there other substances that make you sick? Do you have asthma or serious allergies to mold, mildew, pollens, dust, etc.? What is the builder doing to help protect you from these pollutants?
I do think Low VOC and even No VOC paints and finishes are generally a good idea. But if I'm worried about what might be in the air in my house that might make me sick, there are several other things I'd do first.
Number one on the list is to get rid of the garage. You know, that place where we spew poisonous fumes out of the tailpipes of our cars. The place where we store the lawn mower, the gasoline for the mower, the partial cans of paint and varnish, the fertilizers and the pesticides. The place where we sometimes put furnaces and water heaters that backdraft. Let's not worry too much about the paint on the walls (which typically dries and stops significant off-gassing within a few days) if we have a little toxic waste dump attached to the house.
The most effective cure for the garage problem is to separate the garage from the house, making sure that whatever is in the garage air is not getting into your bedroom or living room. If you can't separate it by distance, you can make sure it is sealed off from the house. Insist that any attached garage be substantially air-tight from the house. The garage can also be depressurized to make sure it's always sucking air from the house, instead of the other way around.
If you're not sure whether air from your garage is getting into the rest of the house, try this experiment. Bring your boat into the garage, leave a few fish in it, close up the garage, and see if you can smell the fish in the house after a few days. Fish odor, another Volatile Organic Compound, will travel wherever the air goes. If you can smell the fish in the bedroom, the garage is not sealed off from the house..
If you don't want to mess with the fish, simply call a certified contractor to pressure-test the house and determine if the garage is technically inside the house or not. While you're at it, have him or her test the duct system-this should also be sealed-and the house-to-the-attic.
Paying attention to the materials that are used in your house is a smart thing to do. You can avoid some real problems, particularly if you already know you have bad reactions to certain substances. But, first pay attention to the basics. Build the house tight. (How tight? It may be too tight if, when you slam the front door, the toilet flushes.) Insulate it right, to avoid cold spots and air currents that can promote mold growth. Use good HVAC equipment, properly designed and properly installed. And ventilate the house to control moisture and supply fresh air for people.
A leaky (typical) house with a mediocre (typical) insulation job and a mediocre (typical) HVAC installation and no (typical) ventilation system will probably not be a healthy place to live, even if all the paints and finishes emit zero VOCs.