Beware of VOCs

More and more people are beginning to fully understand that VOCs play a significant role in our indoor air quality as well as our outdoor environment. At Dapwood we are often asked if our linseed oil finish contains any VOCs. While the answer is definitely NO we wanted to provide more information on VOCs and encourage people to make well informed decisions about their long term exposure risks.

What exactly are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air.

In other words, VOCs evaporate and disappear into the atmosphere very quickly.

Where are VOCs used?

working with chemicalsVOCs are often used in the processing of consumer products and consumers will not be aware of it. While by no means an exhaustive list, here are areas where VOCs are prevalent:

Paint/Finishes- VOCs are used extensively in the paint and coatings industry where they help to evenly spread out the other formulation ingredients. Typical solvents are acetone, hydrocarbons, ethyl acetate, methyl chloride and glycol ethers.

Cleaning- Tetrachloroethene and Perchlorethylene are used widely in dry cleaning industry.

Refrigeration- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) (or commonly known as Freon) were widely used as refrigerants but ozone depletion has finally resulted in their decline. Replacement refrigerants such as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), organic compounds that contain hydrogen and fluorine atoms, are now being used.

Transportation- Fossil fuels such as gasoline are considered a VOCs as well as auto exhaust gases. Benzene is also another VOC that is found in auto exhaust but also tobacco smoke. Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is an additive sometimes added to gasoline in order to increase octane ratings.

Are VOCs really that dangerous?

Some may try to downplay the danger and argue that plants naturally generate VOCs for scents and to communicate. Or mother nature generates benzene in forest fires and volcanoes. However, these quantities pale in comparison to the tons of man-made VOCs produced worldwide today. Plus, who in their right mind would run toward a volcanic eruption or a forest fire!

Direct human contact

While it is true that chemicals, and thus VOCs, affect people in different ways and to different degrees- direct inhalation, digestion or exposure to these toxins is not a good idea in any situation at any dose. Symptoms may not immediately present themselves, but VOCs have an additive effect that may not show up for years or decades later. This is one of the major reasons VOCs are difficult to run clinical studies on.

However, there are several VOCs that are known to be highly dangerous to humans.
Methylene chloride is converted to carbon monoxide in the body and a person will suffer the same symptoms as exposure to carbon monoxide.
Perchloroethylene has been linked to causing cancer in animals. It is also suspected of lingering in dry cleaned clothing and causing breathing related complications.

Environmental Dispersion

We could talk about:

  • CFCs damaging the ozone layer
  • MTBE contaminating drinking water sources
  • Products that must be used in a “properly ventilated area”.

But as furniture makers, it is more appropriate for us to focus on indoor air quality since this is often found to be more contaminated than a busy street corner in Los Angeles.

It is important to keep in mind that in the U.S.:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates VOCs in water, land and air
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates VOCs at work
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates VOCs in transit
  • No one is concerned with levels of VOCs in the air in your home.

Some may think that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) compliance requirements protect VOC exposure via the Regulation for Reducing Emissions from Consumer Products. Consumers need to take a close look at the regulation and see it only pertains to items such as auto windshield washer fluid, hair products, insect repellents, brake cleaners, nail polish removers, disinfectants, and other specific products. Shockingly, VOC limits for the coatings of furniture are explicitly exempted:

  • “Consumer Product” means a chemically formulated product used by household and institutional consumers including, but not limited to, detergents; cleaning compounds; polishes; floor finishes; cosmetics; personal care products; home, lawn, and garden products; disinfectants; sanitizers; aerosol paints; and automotive specialty products; but does not include other paint products, furniture coatings, or architectural coatings. As used in this article, the term “consumer product” shall also refer to aerosol adhesives, including aerosol adhesives used for consumer, industrial, and commercial uses.

Later in the regulation, definition #56 reads:

  • “Furniture Coating” means any paint designed for application to room furnishings including, but not limited to, cabinets (kitchen, bath and vanity), tables, chairs, beds, and sofas.

There is no requirement for VOCs in consumer furniture products!

What can be done to limit exposure to VOCs in my furniture?

Unfortunately, it falls back to buyer beware.

In the not to distant past, furniture was always made from solid hardwood- renown for it natural beauty and lasting value. But as forests have been stressed, the price of hardwood has dramatically risen in the last 5 decades.

In order for many manufacturers to insure that their products are priced for popular mass consumption, alternative wood is used. The most common substitutes for solid wood have been Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), plywood and particle board. These engineered materials require adhesives, glues, resins and preservatives (such as formaldehyde) to give them just enough rigidity to be used as furniture. Furthermore, all of these products must be finished with veneers, laminates and/or furniture coatings. This leads to high levels of VOCs.

How does this affect me and my family?

Since products containing VOCs off-gas their harmful vapors for years, the human body will absorb these toxic vapors. Constant exposure is known to contribute to serious health issues and illness.

When bedroom furniture, in particular the bed frame and mattress, are made with materials containing VOCs, humans are further at risk. This is because the average person spends 1/3 of their life in bed. This puts one in direct contact with these harmful vapors- breathing them in for 8 uninterrupted hours!

Do not put you and/or your family at risk. Take the time to learn what your furniture is made of and what it is finished with. If it contains VOCs or toxic materials- get rid of it! The cost to your health is too high.

Insist on furniture that is as close to nature as possible. Dapwood is committed to crafting healthy furniture from solid American hardwood but we understand that our designs may not work for everyone. If Dapwood cannot help you, please think twice about purchasing products made overseas. Consider looking in antique shops or consignment stores to find VOC-free alternatives.