Indoor air quality

American Clay
American Clay wall finish is a nontoxic, fume-free alternative to paint that comes in an array of colors. You can also find paint that has low or zero-VOC content.
Furnishings and finishes that make the place look great can emit harmful gases.
By Jeff Spurrier, Special to The Times
November 15, 2007
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."

As if VOCs aren't enough, another threat looms: SVOCs, or semivolatile compounds, which have a higher boiling point. Exposure to SVOCs can lead to birth defects, damage to the reproductive and nervous systems, cancer and other problems, according to the EPA.

"They're a different problem -- a bigger problem," says Levin, who is consulting with the World Health Organization. He adds that SVOCs have been largely ignored because they are difficult and expensive to analyze.

"SVOCs are something you're going to hear more and more about," Cordaro says. "They have a high boiling point, so it's tough to turn them into a gas, therefore they may never go away." Instead, she says, SVOCs outgas just a bit, enough to unbind from the source material -- flooring, for example -- and then stick to surfaces and dust within the home.

IT'S ironic that the newer the house, the worse the IAQ problem can be. Recently built homes are made from products that are just starting their outgassing process, and months, if not years, may pass before it's done. New houses also tend to be built tighter and more energy-efficient; that prevents heat and air conditioning from escaping, but it also locks in indoor pollutants, creating a concentrated chemical stew.

For most Americans, IAQ may never be an issue. The number of people prone to chemical sensitivity is estimated to be about 13% of the population. But for those who are affected, indoor air has become an extraordinary concern.

Jaimie Trueblood just finished remodeling his Culver City home according to advice from Cordaro, even choosing denim insulation over fiberglass in hopes that every little change will result in a healthier living environment.

"I've been asking my contractors to use all these different things, and at the beginning they give me that 'Are you psycho?' attitude, and a week later they say, 'This is great!' Trueblood says. "People think you're a jerk at first, but later on they thank you."

Ex-Dodger catcher Brent Mayne says he thought he had IAQ problems because his kids were always coughing and the house didn't feel "right." So when he began to remodel a different home, he researched how to make it healthful from the foundation up. The project took longer, cost 15% more than a traditional remodel and required a leap of faith -- not just for him but for his contractor. "It's like homeopathic medicine," Mayne says. "Some people think you're out of your mind."

He's been in the house and living with its heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, or HVAC, for 18 months. The kids have stopped coughing, he says, and his wife is sleeping better. It took the recent fires, however, to really convince him. "We just shut the windows, and with the HVAC system, it's just unbelievable," he says. "You go from Armageddon out here with the red skies and ash and bad air, and go inside and you're in this oasis."

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