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8 Tips to Avoid Off-Gassing and Bioaccumulation: The Problem with the "New Carpet Smell"

Recently I saw an interesting magazine ad for a car; it included a perfume-like fold out with the “new car smell.” Of course, this ad was targeted at those who love the scent of new furniture, new carpet, new cars, and other items. There is a certain appeal—a floral, soap-like fragrance with hints of leather.

We’ve talked about fragrance before, including some concerns with scented home items like candles, dryer sheets, and the like. But that "new" smell is different. It's an almost chemical-like mix. We all know it, but it's hard to put a finger on it.

But what is that scent really? Is it bad? What is off-gassing? And what do you need to know about the effects of that coveted “new” smell?

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

What is Off-Gassing

I hate to be the bearer of bad news; if you're a fan of that new carpet smell, it may be wise to reconsider. The smell is usually an indicator of VOCs or volatile organic compounds. VOCs are the gas or "smell" that comes from certain products. Often associated with vinyl, man-made fibers, paints, wax, and cleaning products, these compounds could pose short and long-term health issues.

VOCs can be emitted by all sorts of products and can be ubiquitous in home building and furnishings. The concentration is often higher inside because the particles can't disperse and dissipate into the air. This means that in some cases, pollutants are higher inside your home than out.

The health effects of VOCs are varied. Some exposure may lead to nausea or allergy-like symptoms (itchy nose and throat, headache, watery eyes). In other situations, the off-gassing of VOCs can lead to more severe consequences like damage to the liver and nervous system and some cancers.

As I described in my post about the hidden health hazards in your home, many of these dangerous materials are still unregulated. They can come off our electronics, our cars, cleaning products, and of course, building materials and home furnishings. The effects can be even more severe when they are mixed together (as in new construction).

When you smell that “new” smell, you’re experiencing off-gassing. You might notice it in new paint, emitting from a new memory foam mattress, coming off new vinyl floors, and out of your new carpet. It can also come from insulation, wood, adhesives, and many materials commonly used to build homes.

So what can we do about off-gassing? If you’re building a new home, it may feel frustrating that many home building materials contain these compounds and present a hazard. But not to worry. Bioaccumulation—the buildup of these compounds in your body—is a slow process. If you take a few precautions, as I'll discuss below, you can stay relatively safe.

Bioaccumulation is a term often used to describe the process of mercury buildup in fish. When a small amount of mercury is in the water, larger fish are probably not affected. But if smaller fish absorb the mercury, they become more toxic. When larger fish consume the smaller creatures and plankton, seaweed, and other matter also exposed to the contamination, the resulting bioaccumulation can become toxic.

Similarly, bioaccumulation can be a problem if we don’t take measures to prevent too much exposure. In our modern lives, it's nearly impossible to avoid bioaccumulation from off-gassing altogether, but taking a few steps will go a long way to keep you safe. It's imperative if you're building, renovating, or redecorating your home.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

8 Tips to Help You Prevent Bioaccumulation from Off-Gassing

Here are eight ways to prevent or mitigate bioaccumulation from off-gassing of building materials, home décor, and other new purchases.

1. Slow Down Construction

If you're building a new home, one of the best steps you can take to avoid off-gassing is to slow down the construction process. Often houses, especially in developments, are built in a matter of weeks rather than months or years. This speedy timeline might be great for getting in a new home fast, but it doesn't give the building materials significant time to release those VOCs. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us are already dealing with a slower construction process these days.

Now, off-gassing can continue for a while, but the process definitely slows down over time. Staggering your building process can help you avoid breathing in those vapors when you move in. If you have the luxury of time, take your new home construction a little slower.

2. Choose Paint and Flooring Carefully

Paint and flooring materials can be two significant culprits of off-gassing. Carpet is especially of concern (yep, that new carpet smell). Vinyl flooring can also be highly problematic. When you decide what to put in your home, look for options that are made of natural eco-friendly materials like wool, bamboo, cork, solid wood, and natural rubber.

As for paint, there are many low and no-VOC paints available. Many of the major paint retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot participated in a ban on phthalates; they now stock many of these safer paints and materials in their stores. Be sure that you read labels and work with your designer to choose materials you feel good about.

3. Opt for Natural and Plastic-Free

VOCs are off-gassed from man-made materials, so choosing the most natural option is always best. It's important in building materials as well as home décor items. Look for wood, stone, cotton, bamboo, hemp, wool, cork, and other materials found in nature.

Now, it's improbable you will avoid all plastics in your home (and as people become more aware of the issues, manufacturers are working to make them safer). But when you have the option to choose between an item made of plastic or made of bamboo, for example, lean toward the more sustainable choice.

4. Avoid the “New Car” Smell

While we can’t always smell off-gassing, a major indicator is that popular “new car” or “new carpet smell.” (Sorry!) When you smell heavy fumes coming from a new rug, a mattress, a piece of furniture, or any other item, avoid it! Definitely don’t inhale it or hang around near the item.

Off-gassing can take a while, but it's something to consider. When you're decorating your bedroom and get a new bed—wait a few weeks before you sleep on that mattress. Consider storing it in a well-ventilated area for a while to let the item off-gas.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

5. Filter the Air

I am a huge proponent of fresh air and lots of natural light. Windows help air circulate throughout your home, clearing out the toxins and getting rid of those indoor pollutants. If you have plenty of windows in your home, be sure to open them up whenever possible. Bioaccumulation can be a considerable problem in buildings with unopenable windows (like large office complexes). In fact, there's a condition known as sick building syndrome that can come from indoor air pollution.

Plants can also help filter the air in your home. Include houseplants in areas that tend to be more contaminated, like your home office (less circulation, plastic, and electronic components) and carpeted rooms. You may also want to invest in a good quality air filter or a filtration system for your HVAC.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

6. Choose Vintage

This tip is one of the easiest for me to follow. Vintage pieces are often more beautiful, higher quality, and have more personality. As an added bonus, when you choose vintage furniture and décor, you don't need to worry about off-gassing. The piece has off-gassed years ago and is ready for you to enjoy safely.

Of course, even when you're curating vintage décor, it's essential to look at what it contains and how it was made. Many antiques may contain lead, mercury, or other harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Don't assume vintage always means safe, but at least it does mean that you don't need to worry about off-gassing!

7. Upcycle

Hand-in-hand with choosing vintage is choosing upcycled or recycled materials. Reclaimed wood, recycled insulation materials, and repurposed glass can be a beautiful and safe way to construct your home. Not only does upcycling keep items out of the landfill, but often older items are more interesting and beautiful too.

There are many builders and designers who will work with reclaimed materials in construction. If you’ve selected a “green” builder, they may already plan to use the materials in their work. Otherwise, it never hurts to consult with your design team. Most designers, myself included, are always happy to help clients create a healthier home.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

8. Consider the Sources

Off-gassing isn't limited to building materials and furniture. Many new products can off-gas. Think of the "glue smell" you get when you open a new box of sneakers or that new electronic smell that comes with a phone or device. Plastic, adhesives, and other materials can give off an odor and are, thus, off-gassing chemical residue.

But of course, it's nearly impossible to avoid these compounds completely, nor is it necessary to worry about every exposure. Remember that bioaccumulation comes from long-term, consistent exposure in most cases.

Watch for too many chemicals in cleaning products and household fragrances. Choose natural materials, whole foods, and healthy products when possible. Remember that being healthier at home is about progress and doing your best (and not stressing out). When you're investing in home décor, design, or construction, look for people who share your ideas and concerns. By becoming mindful and aware of your home choices, you'll keep your space healthy and comfortable.

What concerns you most about off-gassing? How will you make your home healthier? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

X Lauren


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