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Remodeling and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in building materials and household products. Remodeling often involves the use of paints, varnishes, sealants, and adhesives which all contain organic solvents. These are in addition to many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products used in homes. Fuels are also made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

Studies have found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. Fortunately, steps can be taken to reduce VOCs released indoors.

Health Effects of Exposure to VOCs

The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly, from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

Minimizing Impact of VOCs During Remodeling

Minimize the use of building products containing formaldehyde or other VOCs within the conditioned space of the house.

Pressed wood products, adhesives, and many finishes (such as paints and varnishes) contain VOCs which may off-gas in varying amounts over time. There are several complementary strategies to minimize problems:

  • To the extent possible during remodeling, eliminate or reduce the use of these products inside the living space of the house.
  • Consider using solid wood with low-emitting finishes.
  • Consider the use of pre-finished materials or those that can be finished outside the living space.
  • When engineered products such as pressed wood are used, sealing as many surfaces as possible should help to reduce the rate of emissions. Low-emitting sealants should be used. Check with vendors of engineered wood products for recommendations on sealing their products.
  • Use "exterior-grade" pressed wood products (lower-emitting because they contain phenol-formaldehyde resins rather than urea-formaldehyde resins).
  • Wherever possible, use low-emitting products in the house's conditioned space, such as sealants, paints, and finishes. Use these products according the manufacturers' directions, and provide plenty of ventilation both during and after application. Check with vendors to see if they have low-emitting products which are suitable for your specific needs and applications.
  • See the discussion of painting for strategies to use barriers and ventilation to minimize occupant exposure to pollutants during the remodeling work