Much like a new car, a freshly unwrapped piece of furniture often carries a distinct scent. It’s not the newness your employees are smelling, however – it’s the slow release of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from the products used to create and finish your new furnishings.
“Finishes and paints have numerous chemicals that are toxic, many of which are simply for keeping it liquid while it’s in the can,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Furnishings Council. “As it dries, those chemicals are off-gassed. Read the ingredients of your paint or finish – if you’re smelling something, you could be smelling some of those ingredients.”
Furniture is a particularly common culprit because so many materials, from coatings and glues to particle board and upholstery, can contain VOCs. Some of these pollutants can be toxic or irritating to people with respiratory diseases or chemical sensitivities.
Formaldehyde, for example, is a known carcinogen often found in the adhesives that bind particle board together, as well as some coatings. Others, like butyl acetate (a common solvent in lacquers) and methylene chloride (a paint thinner) can induce dizziness or headaches.
How to Handle It
If a building occupant is complaining about furniture fumes, the product likely did not have a chance to finish off-gassing before it entered your facility. Each chemical off-gasses at a different rate, but many will become undetectable between three and 12 months after manufacture, Inglis says.
Emissions peak within a couple of weeks of production and then slowly dissipate, says Tom Reardon, executive director of furniture trade group BIFMA International.
“Air the furniture out – there’s no other artificial way to accelerate off-gassing,” Reardon explains. “Just get the furniture out of the packaging and expose it to fresh air.”
A quick look at the label will also give you an idea of what’s in your furniture. VOCs don’t preclude you from ordering the piece that best fits your needs, Inglis adds, but requesting low- or no-emitting finishes, components, and upholstery will help increase demand for more environmentally friendly items. Some manufacturers also add UV-cured coatings to reduce the amount of emissions escaping the product.
“In some cases, the manufacturer would love to use a no-VOC finish, but it doesn’t exist for what they have to do,” Inglis says. “Ask the manufacturer if they’ve used a low-VOC or no-VOC finish, but if they haven’t, that’s not necessarily a reason to write off that product. It could still be the right product for you – you just want to confirm that the off-gassing has been done before you bring the product into your facility.”
Moving Past VOCs
In addition to looking at label information, check to see if your furniture or any of its components are certified by GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), or SGS Group.
These organizations offer seals of approval to sustainable and low- or no-emitting products, labels developed in part to serve customers who request lower emissions, explains Reardon.
“The industry has made tremendous strides in the last 10 to 15 years to reduce the amount of VOCs,” Reardon says. “Particle board and adhesive producers are well aware that they’re being asked by their customers for lower-emitting products, and they’ve responded, so it’s not the issue today that it was even 10 years ago. There are a lot of different protocols in place requiring lower and lower levels of formaldehyde emissions.”
Pressure from customers is the quickest route to a low-emission solution, Inglis adds.
“The way that more solutions will come out quicker is when buyers are asking for no-VOC or low-VOC finishes,” Inglis adds. “If buyers don’t find a low-VOC finish for the piece or group of furniture they need now, they should support the company that’s made a commitment to transition to a low-VOC finish as soon as they can.”
Janelle Penny (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.