That woman in the space suit in the 1968 Lestoil ad had the right idea; she's protected from the off-gassing that comes from most cleaning products. Off-gassing is the release of chemicals from the stuff we bring into our homes, or that our homes are actually made of. In drafty old houses with lots of air changes it wasn't much of a problem, but as we build our houses tighter for energy efficiency, these chemicals can build up inside. The craziest part of it all is that we go out and buy them without knowing what's in them, and often stockpile them in the bathroom, the tiniest room of the house with the worst ventilation. Here are some of the worst offenders:
Particle board and plywood
Judging by words of the American Chemistry Council, Formaldehyde is positively benign, a natural part of our world. And it is, in small doses. Unfortunately, it is part of the glue that holds particle board together, the stuff our houses and furniture is made of. It is a recognized carcinogen and causes eye and nose irritation. But hey, it's a natural part of our world.
The best way to avoid formaldehyde is to buy used, whether it is an older home where it has had the time to off-gas, or furniture that has stood the test of time. Or, buy solid wood furniture instead of particle board. More on formaldehyde:
Here is a completely useless product that does nothing but add VOCs to your clothing. Chemicals include chloroform, Pentanes and more to the point that the Material Safety Data Sheet suggests it can cause eye and skin irritation. Ultimately, anything that is designed to make your clothes smell nice is releasing compounds you don't want in your house.
There really are few products stupider than air fresheners, which are actually designed to pump chemicals into your home. The NRDC notes that 75% of houses now use them. Most of them are pumping out phthalates, the gender bender hormone disruptor that is the main villain in vinyl. The NRDC says:
Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies. Exposure to phthalates can affect testosterone levels and lead to reproductive abnormalities, including abnormal genitalia and reduced sperm production. The State of California notes that five types of phthalates—including one that we found in air freshener products—are “known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm.” Young children and pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid contact with these chemicals.
Nail Polish RemoverPure acetone. According to Tox Town,
Breathing moderate-to-high levels of acetone for short periods of time can cause nose, throat, lung, and eye irritation. It can also cause intoxication, headaches, fatigue, stupor, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, increased pulse rate, nausea, vomiting, and shortening of the menstrual cycle in women.
Many products have the flame retardant triphenyl phosphate in the insulation on their wiring; it is an endocrine disruptor that off-gases when the device heats up.
Overheating a teflon pan can lead to the release of Perfluorinated chemicals that cause "teflon flu". TreeHugger emeritus John Laumer thought that this issue was a bit of a myth and we have reported that the formulation has been changed so that they are no longer released.
Laser printers and photocopiers
The printing process releases ozone, which causes irritation to nose, throat and lungs. According to 4Office,
Individuals who have preexisting lung problems, such as emphysema, bronchitis, or asthma, are even more at risk for the effects of ozone (O3). Children are also more susceptible to the effects of ozone (O3) and can increase their sensitivity to allergens.
It is hard to know where to start with this one, so many of them are full of VOCs. That's why people get "spring cleaning headache" from inhaling them all. The EPA has noted that levels of organic pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes rather than outside. Most are not needed; We have recommended vinegar and baking sodas as good substitutes.
The US Department of Health and Human Services maintains a household products database where you can look up the ingredients of almost every product sold in the country. It is disturbing reading.
Designers, manufacturers and builders who should know better
There really are two ways to deal with the buildup of VOCs: don't use products that have them in the first place, and provide lots of fresh air to get rid of them. That's why every new house should have a heat recovery ventilator, every stove should have a real exhaust fan that vents to the exterior (not those silly recirculating noisemakers) and every bathroom should have a high quality exhaust fan that actually gets used, (not the ten buck noisy ones that most builders put in and people hate using).