Much like a new car, a freshly unwrapped piece of furniture often carries a distinct scent. It’s not the newness your employees are smelling, however – it’s the slow release of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from the products used to create and finish your new furnishings.

“Finishes and paints have numerous chemicals that are toxic, many of which are simply for keeping it liquid while it’s in the can,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Furnishings Council. “As it dries, those chemicals are off-gassed. Read the ingredients of your paint or finish – if you’re smelling something, you could be smelling some of those ingredients.”

Furniture is a particularly common culprit because so many materials, from coatings and glues to particle board and upholstery, can contain VOCs. Some of these pollutants can be toxic or irritating to people with respiratory diseases or chemical sensitivities.

Formaldehyde, for example, is a known carcinogen often found in the adhesives that bind particle board together, as well as some coatings. Others, like butyl acetate (a common solvent in lacquers) and methylene chloride (a paint thinner) can induce dizziness or headaches.

How to Handle It
If a building occupant is complaining about furniture fumes, the product likely did not have a chance to finish off-gassing before it entered your facility. Each chemical off-gasses at a different rate, but many will become undetectable between three and 12 months after manufacture, Inglis says.

Emissions peak within a couple of weeks of production and then slowly dissipate, says Tom Reardon, executive director of furniture trade group BIFMA International.

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