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The air in there: It's not pretty

Furnishings and finishes that make the place look great can emit harmful gases.

November 15, 2007|Jeff Spurrier | Special to The Times

WHEN air quality officials declared pollution from wildfires last month to be hazardous, they advised Southern Californians to stay indoors.

Unfortunately, the air inside may not have been much better.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air indoors is often two to five times more polluted than it is outside. Part of the blame falls on the furnishings and finishes that consumers put in their homes -- products that may contain formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, volatile organic compounds (better known as VOCs) and hundreds of other chemicals clinging to every surface.

They might come from your walls, your carpeting, your drapes, your favorite bookcase. "Outgassing" or "off-gassing," the process is called, and it can last weeks, sometimes years.

"Over 60% of the air you breathe in any closed space is off-gassing from surface materials," says Ellen Strickland, owner of Livingreen stores in Culver City and Santa Barbara that sell environmentally friendly home products. "It's an accumulative effect of everything that's on the walls, furniture, counter surfaces, your clothes, the curtains -- anything that's brought into that space."

Anthony Bernheim, a San Francisco architect who helped to develop air quality standards for California state office buildings, says the health effects of hundreds of construction materials and home furnishings remain largely unknown.

"We carry things on our clothes, and molecules move back and forth -- the sealer on the floors, the furniture, the foam, the fabrics, the drywall," he says. "There are grout sealers that have problems we're finding now."

Our lives already may be overloaded with acronyms, but get acquainted with one more: IAQ -- indoor air quality. You probably will hear it much more in the years to come. Like climate change, IAQ is not a single problem. It's a construct, a dizzying mix of factors that may contribute to headaches, nausea and other health-related complaints.

The growing concern about IAQ can be witnessed in the array of low-VOC paints, formaldehyde-free flooring and other products touting their clean composition. But green washing is prevalent, and the truth is that this problem -- and its solutions -- aren't as clear as marketing slogans might suggest.


THE most common indoor air pollutant is formaldehyde, used to bind composite wood products such as plywood, particleboard and medium-density fiberboard. That's why a colorless toxic gas emanates from some types of cabinetry, flooring, walls, countertops and furniture.

Six months ago the California Air Resources Board adopted new caps on the amount of urea formaldehyde in these products, to take effect in 2009. More stringent emission standards coincide with reports of composite wood from China containing high formaldehyde levels that haven't been seen in this country in 30 years.

Despite the new rules, even vigilant consumers can be left wondering: What's in those new kitchen cabinets? Or that upholstered sofa? Or even that so-called green flooring?

Santa Cruz architect Hal Levin has spent nearly 30 years researching building ecology, a term he coined in 1979. He was interested in an environmentally friendly cork veneer widely used by green designers, so he had it tested.

The material was supposed to meet the European standard of 0.1 part per million of formaldehyde, which already was six times higher than standards for California state office buildings, he says. Test results showed that the emissions were five times higher than the European standard, or about 30 times California's.

"It was being marketed as environmentally friendly, and I'm sure most architects were buying into that," Levin says. "There are a lot of bad actors out there."

Indeed, the market is inundated with merchandise that purports to minimize off-gassing or eliminate volatile organic compounds. But what exactly is a VOC?

According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, VOCs are "chemical compounds based on carbon chains or rings with vapor pressures greater than 0.1 millimeters of mercury at room temperature." In other words, at room temperature, these substances turn into gases and mix into our air.

The problem: Some additives in paint and floor finishes are not categorized as VOCs, but they still vaporize, albeit slowly.

"There are green products with glycols in them, and they may not smell as strong, but they do outgas," says Mary Cordaro, an environmental consultant who specializes in home air quality. "They're volatizing more slowly but at high enough rates to still be toxic. It can take six months for some of these glycol chemicals to finally dissipate."

"Low-VOC" can mean anything a company wants it to mean, says Sam Goldberg, president of American Formulating & Manufacturing, a San Diego firm that makes well-regarded low- and zero-VOC paint under the Safecoat brand name. "There aren't a lot of great definitions," he says. "You can have things coming off paint that don't qualify as VOCs, but they can still be irritating."

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