VOCs :: Smell That Chemical Cocktail
When I was a young designer fresh out of school, I worked in an office furniture dealership. Day in and day out, I sat in a large warehouse-style building with no windows (except for the fixed glass storefront). I sat amongst a large collection of new office chairs, tables and bookcases, and panel systems furniture. I noticed a terribly strong smell, something akin to new car smell times ten. And every day by around lunch time, I was nauseous and fighting a splitting headache.
How I Learned about VOCs
Little did I know I was having my first major run-in with volatile organic compounds: VOCs. I wouldn’t hear that term for many years to come, but though I had no name for it, it was obvious to me what it was. All that newly minted furniture was off-gassing. All the chemicals and solvents used in their manufacturing were evaporating into the air around me. I was breathing them in and smelling them, and it was making me sick.
After a few weeks, the nausea and headaches disappeared. I guess my body got used to it. No more problem, right? Um, no. Not quite. Our bodies are pretty amazing instruments. They can take a lot of abuse and are very adaptable, but just because your body has figured out a way to process whatever is assaulting it (be it too much food, alcohol, sunlight, chemical compounds, whatever). And just because you don’t perceive it directly through your senses so much, doesn’t mean these factors are no longer there.
The World We Live In
Sometimes your body hits the proverbial wall and reacts in ways that can’t be ignored. That’s when you know something is a) definitely wrong, and b) needs to change. But until then, we put up with a lot, conditioned not to be alarmed. For instance, appreciating new car smell or not believing that laundry is truly clean unless it smells like bleach. The smell of a freshly painted room is a sign of newness and a healthy space. The use of plug-in air fresheners and fabric sprays and believing that the smell of flowers coming from an aerosol can means there are actually flowers in there. And lastly, my personal pet peeve: baby cologne. What is that about? As if the smell of a freshly bathed little baby needs improvement or camouflage?
Many people still don’t know what VOC’s are and/or don’t equate them with something harmful, because their bodies haven’t hit that wall yet. A friend of mine from Jamaica says they have a saying there: if you can’t hear it, you’ve got to feel it. Nothing beats personal experience. Just ask anybody affected by the Chinese drywall problem here in Florida (and elsewhere) if they know what VOC’s are. I’m sure they are very clear about the definition now compared to just a few short years ago.
Choosing the Best Products for Clients
Back in the early nineties, I worked with a client that was chemically sensitive to formaldehyde. She asked us to design two wardrobe cabinets using wood without formaldehyde in it. That wasn’t easy back then. The cabinetmaker had to search high and low to find the lumber, and it was very expensive. I admit, we were skeptical about her sensitivity claims and there was a lot of pooh-poohing going on. (This same client demanded that the interior width of the drawers correspond exactly to the widths of her husband’s shirts when folded and placed side by side in rows of three! On my list of Kooky Client Requests.). But, in the end, we managed to get it done and she was happy.
The point is — we have so many choices, good choices, now for building products and interior finishes and furnishings that emit low or no VOC’s; paint, carpet, fabrics, furniture, glue and adhesives, caulking, cleaning products. The manufacturers and producers are making the shift, slowly but surely, and designers and architects are coming around too, but it comes down to a matter of the consumer knowing they have a choice and exercising it.
Ask your building contractors and designers for environmentally-friendly and non-toxic products. Tell them of your interest and your concerns, and show that you value your health and the health of your loved ones. Don’t wait for a health crisis. The supply is growing, it’s time to start asserting the demand, and hopefully soon environmentally safe and non-toxic furnishings will be commonplace.
Thanks for reading. To find more essays from Building Moxie and/or to read more articles from contributor Tammy Dalton, please stick and click. Cheers. ~jb
Paint Cans: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurenprofeta/
6 thoughts on “VOCs :: Smell That Chemical Cocktail”
Great post Tammy! And just b/c you can’t feel an immediate physical reaction doesn’t mean it’s not harmful!!
And baby cologne??! I’ve never heard of this and am quite horrified – don’t babies smell good enough without it? Geez.
Yes, surprising, isn’t it? My grocery store has a whole section devoted to cologne/after-bath-splash stuff for babies. I counted at least 16 brands and types. At the risk of a little backlash, it seems to be a Latin thing- all the labels are in Spanish. But to be fair, all the stuff we use (shampoos, conditioners, lotions, everything) has fragrance in it. I worked with a client once that had, I kid you not, a glade plug-in air freshener in EVERY outlet in her house. After the initial olfactory assault, I wondered, what are they trying to cover up?
Way back in the nineties, we had to hunt high and low to find non-chemical floor finishes for our house in Boulder because I would get nasty headaches from the chemicals. If I remember correctly, there was orange essence or something like that in the successful finish! Now it’s common and easy to find. Thaks for bringing up this issue. If you don’t have good health, how important is your home?
Great article, Tammy. The real irony about the phase you describe, when your body suddenly stops minding the high-VOC finishes, is that that is point where it’s probably already developed a full-blown sensitivity to them. Next thing you know, you’re ill, and you can’t work with those materials anymore (never happened to me personally, but to friends of mine). Good thing that products are finally largely changing in that regard.
I found this article to be really informative. I had not heard of VOCs, but it makes complete sense. I worry about dust, now that I am into woodworking, and I read about some woods being more toxic than others, even if they haven’t been treated.
Wenge is my favorite wood, at the moment, but it’s dust is very toxic, so I am extra careful.
Thanks again for teaching me a little bit.