Off-Gassing and VOCs

Last weekend, Sweet William and his daddy and I stayed at a hotel that is evidently popular with families. Before we checked in, they ran out of cribs. A staff member kindly hurried off to buy a new Graco Pack ‘n Play so William would have a place to sleep.

When we woke up the next morning, the room smelled sour. When I picked William up to give him a kiss, his skin and hair smelled of plastic. All night, we had breathed the chemical fumes of the Pack ‘n Play as it off-gassed in the room. William undoubtedly experienced the worst exposure.

What exactly is off-gassing (or outgassing)? It’s the evaporation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from non-metallic materials. This evaporation can continue for years, though it’s often easiest to detect in new materials.

Baby mattresses are terrible off-gassers. Building materials, such as paints, carpets, insulation, cabinets, countertops, and particleboard, off-gas. So do air fresheners, cleaning products and moth repellents. That greasy film inside the windows of your car? A result of chemicals off-gassing into the air and condensing on the glass.

Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors than outdoors. Some are very toxic, while others have no known health effects. Depending on the level of exposure and length of time exposed, VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches, dizziness, nausea; visual impairment and loss of coordination; memory impairment; and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Once in your body, VOCs are stored in fat.

Among the ways to reduce your exposure:

– Maintain proper ventilation.

– Increase ventilation when using cleaning products, painting or doing construction.

– Let new purchases (including toys) sit in the fresh air for a day or two until their “new smell” fades.

– Open your car windows.

– Avoid pesticides.

– Discard unneeded chemicals or partially-full containers.

Further reading:

The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality

An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ):
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

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