Simply put, off-gassing is a process by which products release potentially harmful chemicals, even at normal room temperatures and pressures. As homes are built with tighter seals for energy efficiency, and products are increasingly sold with more chemical treatment, off-gassing becomes an increasingly pertinent problem. Chemicals build up steadily in our homes, although just where they're coming from may surprise you.
Many of us who have looked into off-gassing even in a casual way are aware that one of the biggest sources of chemicals in our homes are our beds. Green Conscience offers a variety of healthy bedding products for just this reason. Modern flame retardant chemicals are one of the largest sources for health threats from toxic contamination. Even a small amount of flame retardant has been shown to damage the mitochondria that are responsible for healthy brain development, with a possible link to autism noted as well.
Heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOC's) are commonly found in many mattresses, including those sold for children's cribs. The conventional processing procedures for wool and cotton regularly involve harsh chemicals and solvents. Mattresses and pillows that are made of foam are especially suspect, as many of them are petroleum-based and off-gas their own unique mix of harmful chemicals.
Bedding isn't the only thing in our homes which can be a source of chemical contamination, unfortunantely. Most plywood, which forms the exterior (and occasionally interior) sheathing of many homes, is processed with formaldehyde. A recognized carcinogen, this chemical is also found in particle board, which plays a significant role in many affordably constructed pieces of furniture. While formaldehyde can cause nose and eye irritation, it is easy to avoid: you can simply buy solid wood furniture rather than particle board, or you can purchase used furniture which has already had time to off-gas.
Dryer sheets and air fresheners are also primary culprits of in-home chemical contamination. As we discussed in our last post, just about anything that is designed to make your home or clothing smell good is a harbinger of VOC's. Air fresheners in particular do very little other than pump chemicals into your home, releasing phthalates, which, as we previously discussed, have serious implications for hormone development and can lead to reproductive anomalies.
Endocrine disruptors like phthalates can also be found in many electronic appliances, partiuclarly in the insulation used in their wiring. When those devices heat up, they off-gas, releasing flame retardants like triphenyl phosphate into our homes. While non-stick pans have also been a common source of contamination, releasing perfluorinated chemicals, Treehugger reports that most formulations have been changed by manufacturers so that they no longer off-gas. Still, nothing beats cast iron pans for those who remain concerned about chemical contamination of their foods.
Lastly, we have household cleaners. Most of these are full of VOC's, so much so in fact that the EPA has concluded that levels of organic pollutants are typically 2 to 5 times higher in homes than outdoors. The US Department of Health and Human Services maintains a database where consumers can read the ingredients of most household products approved for sale in the United States. It is interesting, if depressing reading, and not for the faint of heart.
Wallboard materials and coverings, like drywall and paint, are major sources of off-gassed chemicals as well, although these deserve their own post, which we will address in the future. Enjoy the weekend, and as always, thanks for reading!