Fumes from building products can take years to dissipate

November 6, 2013 

Question: We have just installed oak hardwood flooring in our family room, and purchased the unfinished kind because we will be matching the color to some existing hardwood flooring. Although we brought it home and installed it immediately, it will not be stained and finished for another three weeks.

The flooring has an acrid, sour smell, irritating to the nose and throat, causing me to cough and have a runny nose while in the room.

We have opened all the windows, but after being down for two weeks, it still smells. I realize the staining/finishing process will cause more smell, but we’ll deal with that.

A: Building products contain what are known as “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs. They are emitted as gases — a process known as off-gassing — and include a variety of chemicals, some of which have short- or long-term effects on health, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors — up to 10 times higher — than outdoors, which is the reason you are experiencing such reactions.

It takes a while for VOCs to off-gas — as long as two years for some products — and, of course, in a closed room, the effects on you and your family can be severe.

Some people react more than others to VOCs — usually those with existing health problems, such as asthma. “Adverse health effects in some sensitive populations,” as the EPA puts it.

There are, however, a lot of products in the marketplace that were once heavy on VOCs that are now billed as having low levels or none.

The most important, of course, are stains and paints. When you are selecting stains for the floor and choosing polyurethane to seal it, check the labels.

Low and no-VOC products are typically water-based. When they were introduced to the market, those of us who had been painting for years thought them inferior to the older products — adhesion was an issue, and flow was another.

The products have improved, yet they remain expensive because of the cost of replacement ingredients.

Questions? Email Alan J. Heavens at aheavens@phillynews.com or write him at The Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Volume prohibits individual replies.

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