Before we get started on a cautionary level, congratulations on deciding to get a new home! Most of us know the warning signs when looking through a home, such as obvious black mold, cracks in the foundation, an old and creaky furnace, or asbestos in the walls - but there are a handful of other threats that often go unnoticed when making one of the most important decisions in your life.
A home is where you sleep, eat, and hopefully spend much of your quality time. This article will cover some of the often overlooked dangers in purchasing a home.
This is the second instalment in our continuing series on toxic homes. The series will cover the hidden risks, causes, and solutions to living in a toxic home. If you have found this post of use, you may want to read the rest of the series as well.
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There are hundreds of different chemicals used in building materials that are considered as toxic to a human being. While the bulk of these are regulated, it is not uncommon to find them within everyday household items and in the homes of your friends and family. Asbestos was used heavily for just about everything it could be between 1930 and 1950, so if you’re looking at a home from between those years, the walls are probably insulated with asbestos. Likewise, lead paint was used heavily before the 80’s, and flakes or dust of lead paint have been proven to cause serious health risks.
VOCs and SVOCs
VOCs and SVOCs stand for ‘Volatile and Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds.’ These compounds are a family of more than 200 different chemical compounds, many of which are carcinogenic, that are typically found off-gassing in a home, factory, or office. These gases are a by-product of many solids and liquids found in a wide range of construction materials, including most paints. VOCs and SVOCs affect everyone’s health; those with chemical sensitivities are affected the worst.
It’s important to note that the EPA regulates the VOCs in paint because of their potential to contribute to outdoor air pollution, or smog, and not because of their direct human health risks. There are many organic compounds that are known to be hazardous to our health that are specifically exempt from the VOC definition because they do not contribute to smog formation.
For example, ammonia and acetone are two very toxic chemicals that are not considered smog causing VOCs under the EPA’s definition. This means that these ingredients may be present in building products and materials, yet still be labeled “Zero VOC” or “Low VOC”.
Aldehydes are a class of chemicals, most of which are carcinogenic, that are found both in natural materials and man-made materials. The worst offenders are found in the form of manufacturing glues.
There are two types of formaldehyde adhesives found in manufactured products, like plywood and oriented strand board (OSB). Urea formaldehyde adhesives are known to be toxic. They are water resistant but not waterproof, so until recently they were used for interior wood products. Phenol formaldehyde (phenolic) resins are considered the "safe resin." They are waterproof and were used only for exterior grade wood products, though they are now used for interior products as well.
The amount of "free" formaldehyde (non-polymerized formaldehyde) that is left after the process of manufacturing the resin and making OSB can only be measured by the off-gassing levels of the OSB. The Engineered Wood Association (APA) developed a method for testing the emissions using newly manufactured OSB and found that formaldehyde levels were below 0.1 parts per million with emissions approaching zero as the panels aged. This is well below the PEL values developed by OSHA for formaldehyde emissions in the workplace.
Now that we know what the risks are, please join us in our next post concerning whether or not these factors can be found in your current or future home.