About to refinish your grandmother's old dining room table? Not to be alarmist, but you may want to read this before you pick up that paintbrush. I'll give you the run down on VOCs so you can be fully informed for all your DIY ambitions and home design needs.
Volatile organic compounds, commonly referred to as VOCs, can be a controversial topic. Let’s break down the phrase. In this case ‘volatile’ means the chemicals evaporate and enter the air at room temperature, meaning they don’t need to be heated to release fumes. ‘Organic’ is referring to the presence of carbon and ‘compounds’ because they consist of more than one element from the periodic table.
The volatility of these compounds is determined based on the temperature at which they turn from a liquid to a gas. The lower the temperature that leads to a gaseous state - the more volatile the compound. Some VOCs are noxious while others are undetectable, but scent or lack of scent does not always correspond with volatility.
VOCs can be dangerous and pose a risk to our health. According to the EPA, common effects of VOCs include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. The effects of VOCs are not usually acute but can compound to have long-term health impacts, which can be difficult to study and link to VOC exposure.
VOCs are commonly found in paint, wood finishes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and cosmetics. In woodworking, finishes consist of a ‘carrier’ that keeps the finish liquid in the container and a ‘binder’ which protects the surface of the wood after the carrier has evaporated. They may also contain pigments for color and agents to speed drying and/or protect against mold and fungus.
The off-gassing of VOCs is most acute during the applying and drying of finishes, however, small amounts of VOCs can continue to off-gas months or even years after the initial application. The amount can vary widely based on the type of finish in combination with the atmospheric conditions. It is increasingly common to employ air purifiers in the home that utilize High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and/or activated charcoal which trap airborne odors, gases, and chemicals. If you are concerned about long-term off-gassing there are encapsulation sealers made for trapping VOCs and preventing them from off-gassing into your homes. The EPA and the Green Building Council have numerous literature on VOCs and the impact on your home and health.
If you are applying finish yourself it is easy to determine the VOC levels because federal law in the US requires manufacturers to include a VOC rating on the label. I recommend low or zero VOC finishes. Due to increasing regulations and public awareness of VOCs these products are readily available these days - many companies are developing new low or zero VOC products including Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, Mohawk, Valspar, 3M, Minwax, and many more.
At Studio DUNN we use a variety of finishes, steering towards natural oils with an emphasis on keeping our VOC footprint as small as possible. The oils penetrate deep to protect the wood and in some cases we apply a coating of wax over the oil for increased durability. With wood furniture, it is not common place for the maker or manufacturer to list the finishes that have been used. In many cases it is considered a trade-secret, however, if you ask, many manufacturers are at least willing to share the VOC information with an inquisitive customer.