Five Common Indoor Air Pollutants in a New Home

Are you buying a brand new house? Or perhaps you’re moving into a newly developed complex? Whatever the situation is, there are air quality factors to consider for that fresh new house.

Sometimes, we worry so much about the air quality outdoors that we rarely consider what might be degrading our indoor air quality. While many modern building materials have made construction faster and less expensive, all the while making homes better insulated, these building materials and new homes also have the unfortunate side effect of introducing pollutants into our indoor air.

Potential Building Materials and Pollutants in Your New Home

By its nature, building materials can often emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), many of which can lead to a number of health problems. Negative effects can be as little as respiratory irritation to headaches and nosebleeds. Those with asthma and other respiratory illnesses may experience an exacerbation of symptoms. In some cases, VOCs such as benzene (in particleboard) have been linked to increased rates of cancer.

Here are the most common building materials found in a new home that may negatively impact indoor air quality:

Paint

A fresh coat of paint can brighten a room and help ameliorate irritants like mold. But, when paint is newly applied, it can release VOCs into the air that can be damaging. Acute exposure to VOCs from paint can cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Depending on the ventilation available, that “new home smell” you’re breathing in may actually cause more respiratory health problems than expected.

Carpet

Everyone’s familiar with that “new carpet” smell. What some people do not know is that scent comes from a chemical known as 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PCH), which is used in the carpet backing. In a study performed on animals, those that were exposed for a few hours suffered severe toxicity, including death. Over a two-week inhalation study, those exposed to high amounts for six hours a day showed extensive damage, including spontaneous lesions.

While the effect on humans is still being established, off-gassing from new carpet and rugs are a common problem. In addition to 4-PCH, new carpets can also include styrene and formaldehyde, both of which are known carcinogens. Lastly, carpets are a prime source for dust, dirt, pollen, and mold spores build-up – and can often trap additional pollutants if poorly maintained.

Flooring

Flooring that is installed with an adhesive can introduce high levels of VOCs and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs). Because of this, regulations are often in place nationally and regionally on the types of adhesives that can be used to maintain air quality. Certain flooring types may also be coated by a surface coating that emits even more VOCs.

Caulks and Sealants

From caulking, grouts, and mortars, these materials can include plasticizers that can introduce VOCs to the indoor atmosphere. The air inside a building usually contains 100 to 1000 times the phthalates that air outdoors does.

While similar to flooring adhesive in that you may not be able to do much with the choice of caulks and sealants the home developer choose, being aware of this potential air quality problem source lets you make informed decision on the type of flooring, paint, and fixtures for rooms that may house those who can be sensitive to air pollutants, including children and older adults that are suffering from asthma or other respiratory diseases.

Engineered Wood

A common material used in all aspects from plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard – these pressed wood products sometimes contain urea-formaldehyde, which can off-gas formaldehyde over a long period of time. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.

How to Protect Your Family

While many of these building materials are ubiquitous enough in a new home that they are impossible to avoid, being aware of these potential pollutants is the first step in minimizing and mitigating their negative effects.

Here are some ideas and thoughts on steps you can take to reduce potential indoor air pollutant in your new home and how they affect your family:

  • Make an educated decision on flooring types for each room based on usage and the pros and cons of each flooring type. For example, if you have family members suffering from allergy or asthma, installing carpet in their bedroom may not be a good idea as carpets can trap additional pollen, dust mites, and mold – even with regular cleaning and vacuuming. In its place, floating hardwood flooring that does not require adhesive to install may be a better alternative.
  • When choosing paint tone and colors in a home, ask the developer or contractor if low-VOC emitting paint options are available (including water-based paint), and request the home to be well ventilated when being painted. Note that a balance should also be considered when choosing “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” paints, as some may require additional coatings for proper performance – negating much of their benefits.
  • If your budget permits, choose from solid wood or metal cabinets in lieu of engineered wood cabinetry. This also applies to flooring type, doors, and trims. This reduces the off-gassing of formaldehyde in your home, particularly for cabinets and pantries that will be storing your cooking and food stuff.
  • Give proper time for the home to air out during any installation. If you’re replacing or upgrading the flooring installed by the developer, ask the contractors to air out completely the products before they are installed into rooms and spaces in the home. Letting your home properly off-gas before moving in can limit your exposure to these indoor air pollutants, particularly for little ones that may be much more susceptible to their negative effects.

Although there is no simple solution to many of the negative indoor air quality impacts of building materials, being aware of them provides you with the option to make an educated decision on what you want to be installed into your new home. To learn more about indoor air pollution, you can read more at our guide here.

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