Guide to volatile organic compounds VOCs in indoor air:
This article explains steps to improve indoor air quality in homes, focused on the volatile organic compounds or VOCs often found indoors. These include MVOCs from mold, benzene, methylene chloride, and perchloroethylene among others.
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at ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE.
Many organic compounds are used during construction. Others are used daily in cleaning fluids, cosmetics, and hobby materials. These include the solvents in paints, caulk, and adhesives, as well as the ingredients in hair sprays, carpet and oven cleaners, floor and furniture polishes, and pesticides.
In its TEAM study, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the average level of 12 common organic pollutants was two to five times higher in houses than outdoors, although still 1,000 times less than short-term occupational limits.
The health effects of high concentrations of VOCs vary from the highly toxic and carcinogenic to no known effect. The impact of long-term exposure at the levels found in households, however, is less well understood.
Health Effects. As with most pollutants, the health effect depends on individual sensitivities as well as the level and duration of the exposure.
Common acute symptoms from moderate levels of exposure to VOCs indoors include eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment.
Effects on the nervous system from exposure to VOCs are similar to those from alcohol consumption.
Paints and coatings, adhesives, sealants, and a variety of other building products and materials produce high concentrations of VOCs when they are first applied or installed.
At these levels, even non sensitive individuals might experience symptoms such as eye and respiratory irritation. To avoid problems, new homes should be allowed to air out for at least a couple of weeks before being occupied, particularly if the weather is too cold to leave windows open. In cold weather, the home should be heated with ventilation systems run at full speed to help drive off the volatile compounds.
To limit exposure to household VOCs, the best strategy is to find alternative products. When that is not possible, carefully follow directions, use in well-ventilated areas, and do not store partially used containers in living spaces.
-- Adapted with permission from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: intermittent source of indoor paint odors hard to track down
We remodeled our building over 6 months ago and in the past 2 to 3 months a couple of our offices have strong odors of paint off and on.
Sometimes its stronger in the morning and the next time its in the afternoon. No consistency to really pinpoint where it's coming from. It seemed to be coming from the air vents but we had our a/c heating company come check and they didn't find anything. They cleaned out the air ducts and put new filters in and the smell is still there. Today it is really bad. Its about 1:37 pm now.
Last time we noticed it was on Friday around 3:00pm so time varies. We are at our wits end on what to do about it. It is nauseating and would like to know why it's not something we smell all the time and why it's not at the same time every day. - Debbie 6/19/12
Usually odors from new paint dissipate in a few days, perhaps longer if a building is enclosed and has little fresh air makeup. Increasing fresh air ventilation might help in the case you describe too, though during hot humid weather that's less fun than it would be during cooler drier fall days.
Assuming that you are confident that the odor is related to the new paint (there are plenty of other possible odor sources in buildings) I wonder if there is a relationship between sun exposure, or indoor temperatures and the new paint.
Also, if odors are being transported from one building area to another via the HVAC system, the transport would correlate with when the blower unit is operating - which may not be precisely the same hour every day.
You might try our SMELL PATCH TEST to FIND ODOR SOURCE on some suspect or recently-painted surfaces to confirm that the odor that is bothering you is indeed from those surfaces - if not it's time to start looking further into the question.
Question: how long will floor re-finishing VOC's be hazardous?
(July 7, 2012) Mary Colliflower said:
We are having the wood floors stripped and resealed in our home. The material they will use is bonakemi traffic hd with a VOC of 125. We have four pet birds and a cat who will be relocated in other areas when the work is done. How long before they can be returned to their regular space?
nd why it's not at the same time every day.
Having just fielded a report of a homeowner whose bird died after she sprayed insecticide in her home I'm reminded how very sensitive is the respiratory system of any bird. In deciding in the safe return time for those pets, first I'd be certain that during floor coating they are far enough away to be safe. Preferably out of the building entirely. I would also take your question to your / their vet.
Beware: when we are exposed to an odor for a time our brain begins to tune it out or smell sensors become desensitized, so you may just THINK that all the vocs are gone when that is not the case. When a person with a good sense of smell and who has not been in the building at all can report no odors upon entry, follow that with fresh air ventilation and (subject to your veternarian's advice) wait another 3-5 days.
Or test the area for voc levels.
Question: antiseptic odor from heating radiators
(Sept 23, 2012) noel said:
Antiseptic odor from powder coated fins in hydronic panel radiators when heated permeates everything irritates eyes
The hydronic radiators were brand new and had only just been installed Once they heated up the smell became obvious. It was not a new paint smell or or anything like that. More like a biocide or similar.
Noel, sounds as if the radiators need to be cleaned . Look also for indications of leaks and ask if an antifreeze solution was used in the heating system. Also try simple detergent washing of the radiator exteriors to remove any sprayed-on cleaners.
Question: asphalt smell
(Nov 29, 2012) CC said:
There's a smell in one corner of my kitchen, coming from the floor. Actually it's coming from under the cabinet, and I think it's coming from inside the wall because I can feel a small draft coming from that spot. It smells like overheated wires to me, and like chemical solvent to my friend.
We both also think it smells like the smell of asphalt when someone is putting on a new roof. It doesn't spread through the house, but I can smell it when I walk by that spot, and smell it more strongly when I put my nose right on the spot. It took me a few hours to locate the source of the smell. It started two days ago, and I'm pretty sure it hasn't happened before. The building manager came in while I was at work and he didn't smell anything, but when I got home both me and my roommate smelled it clearly.
The smell spot is next to an interior wall. It's a very old, poorly maintained building with a lot of tenants, in a city. We can't ask the tenants below us if they smell anything, because they are unfriendly. Any suggestions--what it could be, and who I should call--fire department, housing inspector, gas company...? I don't want to keep putting my nose down there to sniff it because it could be dangerous.
Asphalt odors: in walls I'd look for a sun-heated or other-system-heated asphalt-coated insulation paper or building paper in or on the wall. Also look for heated tile mastic.
Question: Ammonia odors
(Aug 26, 2014) Joyce said:
Just recently, I learned that our painting contractor applied exterior paint to about half the walls inside our home. For many months, (cooler, dry months) we experienced no problems. As the hot, humid months arrivedthis year, we started to notice an odor that smelled like ammonia. For months, I couldn't figure out what it was.
Yesterday, which was warm and humid, I was leaning up against a wall...and the smell was very strong. I then went around and smelled the walls that were painted with exterior paint and there is no doubt that it is the paint. Can you tell me if it is acceptable to use exterior paint inside a home? Can it cause this type of odor? I have three children and also want to know if there are health concerns related to this and lastly, what is the "fix"?
It is not illegal to use an outdoor paint indoors - more likely the paint will be more durable than typical interior paints. But indeed the paint's formula may be different.
Just a guess, but perhaps the paint used contained a solvent that smells like ammonia. Some latex paints can exude this odor while curing.
Used indoors that odor may take longer to dissipate since there is no exposure to sunlight nor to outdoor air movement. You may solve the complaint by ventilating the home or if weather permits, heating the home interior for a time to speed the outgassing.
First try searching inspectapedia for our SMELL PATCH TEST KIT to see a procedure you should use to be sure you've got the right problem identified.
Question: test and run indoor air quality consultants: ask for your money back?
11/20/2014 Elaine said:
I had a IAQ check in my home after installation of a new heater and air conditioner were installed along with all new externally insulated duct work and flex duct. Unfortunately, staying in the home creates major nose and throat irritation which appears approx. 8 hours after being in home. Sore red nasal area sometimes with slight nose bleed and red irritated throat leading to dry hoarse cough.
The IAQ test shows significant vocs on 2nd floor of ethanol, acetone, limonene, a-pinene, ethylacetate, chlorodifluoromethane, 1,1-dichlor-1-fluoroethane. The last two I assume could have come from taking out the old system and the refrigerant escaped into basement air.
Reports sates Est VOC Level NG/L at 12 and 10 respectively for those items and the Est VOC Level PPB at 3 and 2 for those items. The basement were system and ducts are show high levels of ethanol, hexanal, acetone, a-pinene, texanol-b, toluene and propylene glycol.
The system was installed in early summer and months later, problems still occur whether system is running or systems are off. Can you advise what type of company can be hired to help with getting air quality back to acceptable levels/normal, could these vocs be due to insulation in flex duct or metal duct wrap, how to offgas faster, etc. The basement where this was installed only has one small window and fans or open windows do not appear to have resolved issue. Thank you!
Reply: "test and run" IAQ consultants who just toss the report over the wall
Indeed what makes "test and run" IAQ consultants of little value is just what one sees in your note. You want your paid consultant to relate the test findings to the materials, systems, irritant sources in the building. Otherwise the report is not helpful and may even be misleading.
OPINION: We have heard from many readers who were frustrated after paying a large fee to an indoor air quality consultant who did little more than collect an "air test for mold" or a few other simple air tests. Such air tests are quite unreliable when they do not detect anything, and even if the test does suggest there is a problem you are left with no idea what to do next. Hiring someone who might actually give useful advice probably costs less in the long run than your "stop by and test" consultant.
11/21/2014 Elaine said:
Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, the results were emailed to me and after various phone calls and of course prepymt of many dollars, they offer no additional advice, help..or even further referral. They were looking for active mold as being problem in home but found no visible sign and MVOC test came back with a TMVOC of 6 ng/l in basement and 3 ng/l on 2nd floor which told them no active mold. Therefore I need to go to next step and find someone who helps sort out the VOC issue but can't seem to find who. Is there any guide or key word to use to search to find a company who helps in this area? Those that advertise improving IAQ are only offering to add a ventilation system to air/heater but nothing else.
Note that the initial report does state items that the chemicals could come from but they dont appear to agree with what has been done in house (which has also not been lived in for one year). One comment was most comes from personal care products, but w/o anyone being there for a year I can't correct based on this because it has to be something else. No fragrances or cleaning chemicals usually used in home due to a child with asthma type health issues. Some other chemicals are related to gasoline/automotive products...none of which are in house or attached garage....so frustrated and can't find who to go to next to help locate issues. Any advice?
Reply: how to obtain a more diagnostic indoor air quality inspection and consultation
From my experience an on-site expert who is familiar with building science, building materials, air movement in buildings, indoor environmental issues, and the limitations of testing, who can combine a client interview, building history, and thorough building inspection pays more reliable dividends or reaches more useful conclusions than someone who stops by to increase their bottom line income by performing some test, sending the test material to a lab, and throwing the lab report over a wall to you. I discourage our readers from taking the latter approach as it is never prescriptive and rarely even adequately diagnostic.
You might want to
1. talk with your doctor about your own complaints, consulting a physician who is a specialist in environmental medicine if necessary, asking to what extent your complaints are likely to be building related and, presuming the answer is - alot - what sorts of building contaminants or contents are likely to be causative.
2. talk with building inspectors and investigators (see our EXPERTS DIRECTORY at page top), listening to the experience and approach of someone you're thinking of hiring, to be sure that the person is sufficiently experienced and broad as to probably be useful. Don't assume that an industrial hygienist - who understands testing and exposure limits - knows much about building science, and don't assume that a "mold inspector" is worth two cents, and don't assume that a home inspector knows environmental issues. You'll need to do some interviewing or perhaps find local referrals from your doctor.
Keep us posted and ask for more comment if specific questions arise.
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