Friday, August 24, 2012

That "New Car Smell" May Kill You!

Everybody loves the smell of a new car. Mmmmm... or a brand new iPod, all shiny and clean. You unwrap the cellophane and carefully take it out of its box. Suddenly, that unmistakable "new gadget" aroma fills the room. Ever wonder what it was that makes new things smell so...smelly? Unfortunately, some of the odors given off by building materials, such as plastics, woods, carpets, and paints are actually chemical fumes evaporating into the air. These chemical fumes are better known as VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and in some cases they can be toxic. New homes or newly renovated homes often contain many materials that will off-gas VOCs for days, weeks, or even months. Certain kinds of caulkings and pressed wood cabinets are often the biggest culprits for VOCs. So, what's the solution? There really is no grand solution that totally eliminates the emission of VOCs in the case of a new or newly renovated home. Your best bet is to mitigate the problem by choosing better, higher quality products that contain little or no VOCs in them. Choosing natural products such as glass or stone over synthetic products such as vinyl is preferable. The trade off? Natural products are usually much more expensive than synthetics, but they're safer in your home, and they're usually a higher quality product that you'll probably be happier with in the long run.

In this article, reposted from, Mike explains why that "new car smell" may be hazardous to your health! (Don't shoot the messenger! Just read the article.)


The ABCs of VOCs

Undated handout photo of painting crew. Homeowners should choose low-VOC options during new home construction and renovation projects, such as Green Seal paints and hardwood floors.

Photograph by: Alex Schuldt, The Holmes Group

VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are chemical byproducts found in many building supplies and products. Treated wood, insulation, carpeting, paints and cabinets all contain VOCs that will evaporate or off-gas into your indoor air.
You can usually smell VOCs the strongest in varnishes and some paints.
They're also in cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, air fresheners, furnishings and
It's almost like we've been programmed to like the smell of VOCs because we normally smell them when we get something new, like a gadget or even a new home or reno. But VOCs have been known to cause headaches, dizziness, and can be toxic in some cases.
New homes have higher levels of VOCs. The same goes for renovations. VOC levels will decrease over time due to off-gassing. But how long they off-gas depends on the material.
For example, adhesives and caulking are among the worst for off-gassing and VOCs. That's why you're supposed to stay out of bathrooms for at least a couple of days after caulking. Whereas VOCs in spray foam will be gone or non-detectable within a few days. But pressed wood cabinets will off-gas for weeks - sometimes even months. In fact, cabinets are huge VOC contributors.
Part of the reason is because of the adhesives and varnishes some cabinets contain. These are cabinets usually made from pressed wood, particleboard or MDF (medium-density fibreboard). But a lot of it has to do with just the number of cabinets in a house.
Think about it: Most homes have cabinets in the kitchen, dining room, living room, bedrooms and bathrooms. This will all add up and increase the amount of VOCs in the air inside your home.
Spray foam
I get a lot of questions from homeowners asking me about the off-gassing from spray foam. Spray foam is a safe product as long as it's installed properly. The standard curing time is 24 hours. The problem is when you get inexperienced contractors installing it.
For example, if a job requires more than one application you need to wait at least two hours before applying the second coat. But some installers will rush a job and not wait. When you don't let it cure the full two hours VOCs will get trapped in between the layers and then off-gas over time - usually when people are living in the home, which is bad.
Rubber Pavers
I recently got an email from a homeowner asking about rubber pavers and VOCs. He wanted to know if it was safe to install rubber pavers around his home or if it had high levels of VOCs.
Rubber pavers are a type of flooring usually made from recycled rubber, like tires. They're porous which makes them very absorbent. So be careful about potential spills. But the amount of off-gassing from rubber pavers varies between manufacturers.
Most of the VOCs in rubber pavers come from the adhesives used for installation. That's why some manufacturers are producing rubber pavers that can be installed without adhesives. The main thing to look out for is to make sure it doesn't contain formaldehyde.
This strong-smelling, colourless gas was used in a lot of building products and materials that contained adhesives, such as pressed wood. There was also a specific kind of insulation that was made from formaldehyde - Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI).
UFFI was popular in the late 70's. But then in 1980 it was banned because improper installation made it harmful for too many homeowners.
Moderate exposure to formaldehyde can cause your eyes or nose to burn temporarily and a sore throat. Higher levels of exposure can cause asthma-like symptoms, like coughing and wheezing. But very high exposures can be toxic. It's been known to even cause some cancers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. Luckily, most Canadian homes don't have formaldehyde levels that can cause cancer. Its use in building materials and products has decreased over the years as well. But we should still be smart about the choices we make for our homes and indoor air quality.
Buyer Beware
Glass, ceramic tile, metal, stone and other hard and inert materials don't release any VOCs. This makes them the safer choice. Also try and stick to hardwood instead of vinyl flooring, or natural carpet instead of synthetic. If you can afford it, go for custom solid wood cabinetry with a low or zero VOC finish.
Be careful about products that claim to have low-VOCs. A company can say a product, such as paint, has low-VOCs. But it could just mean "lower than before" or "lower than another brand".
Homeowners need to look for Green Seal (GS) Standard products, including paints and rubbers. Green Seal means the product and/or material has been tested and meets environmental standards. It's a better safety indicator than just "low-VOCs".
Catch Mike Holmes in his new series, Holmes Makes It Right, premiering Tuesday, October 16th at 9 p.m. on HGTV. For more information, visit For more information on home renovations, visit

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