Picture the scene: after months of sleeping on a mattress that could only be described as lump-ridden and waking up every morning with a fun new pain in your back, you’ve decided to invest in a new mattress. You did the research, looking at all the sexy Silicon Valley brands that come in a box and promise not only a better sleep but a better life. Maybe, if this was pre-lockdown, you even went to one of those Dreams Sleepmatch testers where Stacey from Gavin and Stacey narrates to you as you lie on a mechanical throbbing mattress to determine what kind is right for you. You find one you believe in, you order it and, finally, you reach the moment when the new mattress meets the bed frame. As it unfurls, a smell fills the air. A chemical, new car x100 smell. And it lingers.
That, my friends, is the beginning of a process called off-gassing.
So what is off-gassing?
Off-gassing is the particularly sexy name for the process through which the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in the manufacture of many household items are released into the air that you breathe. Everything off-gasses in some way – if it has a smell, it’s off-gassing. But the smell of a pineapple is far less potentially toxic than the VOCs wafting from your new sofa. We’ll come to what VOCs are further down but it’s worth noting that the process of off-gassing is most common in new household items for two reasons: the process begins when the new item is first exposed to the air, and the use of VOCs is more common in a lot of newly manufactured products.
Off-gassing doesn’t stop when the smell stops either. The 'new smell' may disappear after a week or so but the fumes are still being emitted – they’re just much more subtle. Off-gassing can last between six months and five years depending on the household item and the chemicals used to treat it.
Where do VOCs come from?
Volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, are chemicals which are often used in the manufacturing process because of safety concerns such as flammability. Others are added as a scent or fragrance, or sometimes they are naturally occurring within a material. Here's an example from the interior designer Nicola Holden: "A 'cheap' sofa is usually filled with foam and many of these upholstery foams have been made from polyurethane. Polyurethane is flammable, so it's also treated with flame retardants that often contain hazardous chemicals."
Why should I care?
We should be wary of demonising the use of 'chemicals' in a broad sense but there is some cause for concern with VOCs. Compounds such as acetone, benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and xylene appear in many household items. Many of these VOCs have been listed as known carcinogens, irritants and toxicants which can contribute to asthma and other breathing conditions, particularly in children and the elderly. They’re also known to cause dizziness, headaches and nausea. They are even linked to hormone disruption. Here’s a list of the worst offenders and their potential impacts.
As in Nicola’s example, there is also an increasing awareness that this is a fast homeware problem. The use of cheaper manufacturing materials in composite furniture instead of solid wood or cheap foam instead of a more organic filling means that products are more likely made of – and treated with – VOCs.
How can I deal with off-gassing?
While there is nothing you can do to stop off-gassing in your home once an item is there, you can improve ventilation to get the worst of the process over quicker – simple things like opening windows and doors to improve air circulation. Ideally, if you're one of those lucky people with a balcony, porch or garden, you can ventilate any new items out there for a couple of days to get the worst of the chemical emissions outside.
However the best way to deal with off-gassing is to avoid introducing the possibility of it to your home. Vintage and secondhand furniture is a great option as it will have off-gassed long ago and will contribute to a more ethical, circular economy in the homeware industry. For things that have to be new (like mattresses and paint) you can avoid and reduce VOCs just by doing a bit more research – you can buy VOC-free paint and look into chemical-free mattresses. As with every attempt to make a more environmentally friendly decision, the good news is that the options are out there. You just have to make the effort, and probably budget, to find them.