That New Furniture Smell Could Be Contributing to Environmental Pollution

Those unpleasant fumes from your new couch are probably volatile organic compounds.

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Have you ever brought home a new piece of furniture and noticed a strong, foul-smelling odor that sticks around for days, even weeks? Thanks to something called volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), it’s not uncommon.

VOCs are essentially chemical compounds—many of them human-made—with high vapor pressure and low water solubility, so they’re often used as industrial solvents for products like paint, office equipment, building materials, and furnishings.

VOCs evaporate over time (some take longer than others, but they generally peak with new products), becoming a gas at room temperature and releasing into the air through a process known as “off-gassing.”

The smell could be coming from your upholstery being treated with flame retardants, chemicals to protect the fabric, or the varnish from your wooden furniture. These solvents range from trichloroethylene and fuel oxygenates to chloroform and formaldehyde.

What Does Formaldehyde Smell Like?

Formaldehyde is common in particleboard, paneling, foam insulation, wallpaper, paints, and some synthetic fabrics. Because of its strong, pickle-like odor, formaldehyde can be detected by the human nose at even very low levels.

A colorless chemical that’s used throughout the furniture manufacturing process, especially in the production of adhesives and solvents, formaldehyde has been connected to all sorts of environmental and health issues.

Although it occurs naturally, the chemical breaks down quickly to create carbon monoxide when it enters the environment in high quantities.

How to Get Rid of That New Furniture Smell

There are a few ways to get rid of that new furniture smell and theoretically decrease your exposure to harmful VOCs. Consider the following when you purchase a new couch, carpet, table, or any other furnishing.

  • Allow products to off-gas outside: Once you receive your furniture, remove the packaging and allow them to air out outside before bringing them into the house. Find a covered area or a detached garage if you’re worried about the weather. You can also look into purchasing floor models that have already had time to off-gas at the store or ask the manufacturer to take the product out of the package at the store ahead of time.
  • Ventilation: If your furniture is already inside and you just noticed the smell, open windows or run a fan to disperse the fumes until the smell fades. Wash any removable pieces (per the manufacturer’s instructions) and allow them to dry outdoors.
  • Keep the room cool: VOCs release more fumes as the temperature and humidity rise, so consider keeping your home on the cooler side with air conditioning or dehumidifiers to restrict off-gassing.
  • Invest in indoor plants: Studies show that certain houseplants can limit or actually remove harmful VOCs from the air inside your home, and that some plants can even pinpoint specific chemicals. Look for plants like dracaenas, bromeliads, and jade plants.

Of course, if you want to avoid the new furniture smell altogether, consider looking for products that are less likely to emit as many VOCs.

  • Look for certifications: Greenguard and SCS Global Services both offer indoor air quality certifications. To earn these certifications, products must undergo an evaluation process that reviews their ingredient formulation and manufacturing system as well as conducts emissions testing.
  • Buy used: Find older furniture from thrift shops, antique stores, or online marketplaces that has already had plenty of time to off-gas. That said, avoid painted furniture made before 1978, when lead paint was banned.
  • Ask the manufacturer: Especially before purchasing pressed-wood products (including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture), ask the manufacturer about the formaldehyde content. The EPA recommends using "exterior-grade" pressed-wood products that emit less formaldehyde because they contain phenol resins instead of urea resins.

Environmental Impact of VOCs

There’s a reason why you notice the smell more with indoor furniture than outdoor—the EPA acknowledges that concentrations of VOCs can be up to ten times stronger inside. According to the agency, this discrepancy happens regardless of whether the home is located in rural or highly industrial areas, indicating that elevated concentrations of VOCs can stay in the air for extended periods of time.

Breathing certain VOCs in their mildest forms can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and even cause more severe reactions and concerns.

A 2020 study of residential indoor air in southeast Louisiana detected at least 12 VOCs in a majority of the homes sampled. It’s even been suggested that people are more likely to inhale more VOCs during sleep because of poor bedroom ventilation and the close proximity of their nose and mouth to mattresses. One study found that inhalation levels from infants and young children of VOCs like acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and benzene could reach unsafe levels.

When it comes to the natural environment, VOCs are just as concerning. These chemicals play a large role in creating ozone and fine particulate pollution in the atmosphere, as they react with nitrogen oxides emitted from industrial activities when exposed to sunlight. It certainly doesn’t help that VOCs are also emitted by motor vehicles, chemical manufacturing facilities, factories, and even biological sources.

In 2018, a study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that volatile chemical products (including paint and adhesives used for furniture) now contribute higher levels of VOCs to global emissions as those from transportation have decreased.

In some industrialized cities, these products now constitute half of fossil fuel VOC emissions. Basically, human and environmental exposure to carbon-based fossil fuel emissions is transitioning away from transportation-related sources and toward products that contain VOCs.

Originally written by
Matt Hickman
Matt Hickman is an associate editor at The Architect’s Newspaper. His writing has been featured in Curbed, Apartment Therapy, URBAN-X, and more.
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