How to Avoid Harmful VOCs

What are VOCs?

Chemicals emitted by new furniture and paints are giving people headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. The potentially dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can cause asthma in some people. Britain is also home to 1600 chemicals which have not been fully tested for toxicity. But the government has decided that it’s okay to roll out a mass-testing scheme of VOC exposure on the public anyway – as part of an attempt to force companies with over 100 employees to pay £100 per year towards a national air-quality monitoring system. So will we soon be seeing ‘WARNING! This house contains hazardous levels of paint and carpets’ signs at show homes across the land? Perhaps not: many industry experts believe that current regulations already go far enough to protect the public. ‘We already have a duty of care towards the public, companies are required to ensure their products do not cause harm,’ says Alan Birtwistle, director general of the Paintings and Artists’ Materials Association (PAMA).

But campaigners disagree. Last month Tony Fountain from environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) sparked an investigation by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after he claimed that new paint had made him seriously ill: ‘I developed a range of symptoms including headaches, nausea and digestive problems which I was told by my doctor were due to exposure to low doses of [volatile organic compounds].’ In all likelihood you will be exposed to VOCs each year. But how worried should you be? The first thing to realise is that VOCs are everywhere: in the air we breathe, food and drink and even from some cosmetics. Below a certain level of exposure there is no health risk at all – if you could build a box which captured all of your VOC emissions then it would still be safe to drink it after an hour or so. In fact several thousand people spend eight hours or more in their cars each day without ill effect, being exposed to far higher levels of toxic fumes than they’d ever encounter indoors.

Accordingly campaigners’ concerns have focused on the risks posed by new paints and varnishes, which can emit up to 50 times as many VOCs as normal household products. But researchers have yet to establish a definitive link between exposure and illness. ‘I think you can’t prove that any product is safe for everyone,’ says Tim Dodderidge, head of industry body the British Coatings Federation (BCF). He argues there’s no reason why we should be tolerant of certain consumer goods such as paint but not others: ‘If people want a level playing field then they must accept that their choice of wallpaper or furniture will have an effect on the environment too.’

Paul Biggs, director general of the Paint and Decorating Association agrees: ‘All new paint contains VOCs, even natural paints like limewash,’ he says. By law all newly painted surfaces must be aired before use, and homeowners should wait for at least a fortnight before undertaking any work involving new paint in the same room. In addition, he argues that many older paints contain far more hazardous ingredients: ‘None of the modern emulsion paints used today contain lead or arsenic,’ says Biggs. He does admit that up to 75 per cent of existing buildings will present a problem because they are lined with solvent-based products which emit very high levels of VOCs – and he recommends that anyone not sure what kind of paint is on their walls should open windows for fresh air when moving in or out.

But the government’s attempts to make industry pay towards a national air monitoring scheme has drawn fire from smaller firms who fear they’ll be unfairly targeted if they are forced to shell out for pricey testing equipment that public health officials could use to serve them with court orders if they fail to comply with new EU regulations. In response the government has promised that it will come up with a national strategy detailing what firms need to do before the end of this year, but in the meantime an exemption for small businesses is likely to be introduced.

VOCs aren’t just used in paints and varnishes: they’re also found in cleaning fluids, glues, adhesives and some solvents – as well as being given off by new carpets or furniture too. If you want to minimise your exposure try using less toxic products whenever possible (you can check whether something is hazardous by checking its label, which should tell you what kind of VOCs it contains). And if you must use a solvent-based product such as paint stripper then open all the windows and doors to allow the fumes to disperse outside. Otherwise, in your own home at least, try to reduce your exposure by spending more time outside: after all, short-term exposure isn’t dangerous at all.

Some paint companies have been accused of exaggerating the dangers of Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. However, there is no evidence that these chemicals pose any danger to healthy adults who are not skilled painters and follow sensible precautions..

Creosote for example has been linked with many diseases including cancer. In fact this type of creosote was outlawed in the USA years ago. Today’s paints use a water based solvent called heptane which evaporates quickly while off-gassing into the air rather than binding tightly to the paint surface as did the older water based paints. The fast evaporation rate means that only minuscule amounts reach you when brushing on a coat of paint.

There is some reason to believe that older oil based paints are more dangerous than modern water based paints. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to use water based paints when painting a room that you wish to inhabit within two weeks or so after the painting process is complete.

Larger living areas pose bigger problems. If you paint and move in all at the same time then there are bound to be traces of VOCs inside. They have not dissipated as much as if you had allowed them time for natural ventilation to take place before moving in permanently.. In fact your lungs will soon acclimate themselves to the low levels of lingering VOCs by reducing their rate of absorption through lung tissue. Any risk posed by this is minimal assuming that you did not have any underlying health issues.

People with already compromised immune systems such as asthma patients may notice a temporary worsening of symptoms until their lungs acclimate themselves to the small traces of VOCs that lingered inside despite your best efforts. While this may be annoying, it is hardly life threatening and should disappear on its own in less than 2 weeks. If in doubt see your doctor just in case you have other sources of sensitivity or allergies that could be aggravated by breathing tiny amounts of VOCs. The fact that you did not get sick after moving into your freshly painted apartment suggests that there was probably nothing to fret about at all.

How to avoid VOCs

Simply put: if you follow the proper precautions when using and applying paint then you shouldn’t worry at all about the small traces of VOCs that will remain in your temporarily unoccupied home (for up to two weeks). You can even have a fresh coat applied while you are still living there provided that you open all the windows and doors to allow these tiny amounts of vapour to dissipate outside.

The only exception might be if other sources of toxins such as carpets, cleaning products or furniture are present in your home. These may very well linger for longer than two weeks before complete evaporation has taken place and hence contribute towards building up higher concentrations inside your house.

For example: After having carpet installed the contractor told us we could come back in 24 hours because he knew what they used. However, one of us had a cold and the other was pregnant so we waited three days before re-entering our newly carpeted home.

Of course, when you hire a reliable painter, such as from Ethereal Painters, you can be sure to always receive the top quality.  We will ensure you are not breathing in toxic fumes or VOCs. Call us today for your free quote at 604-505-2745 or fill out our free estimate form today. Let our experts at Ethereal Painters handle your project.