Protect Your Family and Your Woodwork

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Protect Your Family and Your Woodwork


A report done by CBC Marketplace found that when levels of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are over 500 ppb, it causes issues for people who have chemical sensitivities. VOCs are particularly an issue in painting and paint coverage, when applying a polyurethane clear coat to wood finishes, and in varnishes and primers.

The Problem of VOCs

A recent study put participants in a controlled work environment for six days. The controlled office space was at the TIEQ lab at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. In the controlled space, levels of VOCs were reduced to 50 micrograms per cubic meter and 40 micrograms of outdoor air was pumped in per minute, per person. The result of the study was that average scores on cognitive tests for those in the space were 101% higher than when working in conventional workspaces. A study done in Sweden found that children living in bedrooms with PGE (a type of VOC) levels in the top 25% increased their likelihood of getting asthma by 100%, their likelihood of experiencing rhinitis by 320%, and their chances of getting eczema by 150%. VOCs cause health issues in both adults and children, and yet studies regularly reveal that organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors.

How to Avoid VOCs With Wood Work

The polyurethane clear coat, varnish layers, and wood stains typically used to work with wood indoors inevitably contain solvents, pigments, and binders that are necessary if they are to work effectively to finish wood. The key is finding materials to lay down a polyurethane clear coat and stain that are effective for protecting the wood and yet minimize human exposure to unwanted chemicals. Here’s how to keep your family’s exposure to a minimum while still protecting hardwood floors and furniture.

  • Look for low VOC paint, stain, varnish, and polyurethane clear coat. Federal law now mandates that a VOC rating be included on the labels of all these times. The rating is expressed in grams per liter, or g/l, to explain the concentration of VOCs in the mix. In general, the lower this rating, the better.
  • How you use the finish is as important as the rating. While it’s very important that manufacturers produce low VOC products, it’s impossible to eliminate all VOCs completely and still have a varnish, paint, or polyurethane clear coat that actually does the job. Thus how the stain or varnish is used is very important, as well. There are steps you can take to maximize protection, and these include:
    1. Buying only as much as you need. Don’t keep open and unused supplies around your home or garage. They’ll sit there on the shelf indefinitely emitting chemicals. Find out how your community deals with them and dispose of unused finish and paint properly.
    2. Do as much work outside as possible. This isn’t always going to work if you’re doing a floor, for example, but whenever it is possible, do things outside and give them a minimum of 24 hours to off-gas. When indoor work is necessary, open windows and run fans. Workers should wear masks, and small children, those sensitive to chemicals, and pregnant women should stay away for two days.
    3. Choose the longest-lasting finish. In some cases it may be preferable to use things with a higher rating of VOCs if they will last longer and not have to be redone. For example, if the family has not yet moved in, it can be worth it to use the higher VOC, longest lasting stain or polyurethane clear coat available, give the place plenty of time to off-gas with open windows and fans, and then rest in the knowledge that you’ll not have to apply another coat or refinish items for years to come.
  • Be Careful of the Worst VOCs Some are definitely worse than others, so whenever possible especially avoid benzen and methylene chloride, toluene, and carbon tetrachloride.

VOCs are necessary in some products, but there are ways to minimize exposure for you and your family. Being careful to buy low VOC products and careful about how you use them is the best way to protect both your family and your investment.

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