Have you ever experienced that “new car smell”? It feels nice, clean, and luxurious. But it can also be harmful to your health.
We know… we hate to be the party poopers. But it’s true. Research has found that — due to the upholstery, plastics, vinyls, and other materials commonly used in car interiors — they can off-gas some harmful chemicals. 
Researchers have detected over 275 different chemicals in car interiors, some of which have been linked to serious health complications. And as these chemicals settle, they can emit from the materials, leaving you breathing in a range of chemicals with each breath.
It’s called off-gassing.
New materials that are made with, or involve, chemicals can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your car or home. Some are more dangerous than others, but researchers have linked some common VOCs to 180 health conditions.
Since the 1940’s, 80,000 different chemicals have been created and added to household items. And many of them haven’t been tested on how they impact human health, not to mention how they could interact with each other!
But don’t panic quite yet. Yes, these chemicals are out there. Avoiding them completely will be a challenge, but there are things you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible.
What else can off-gas?
Here are some of the most common off-gassers:
Furniture: Mattresses, couches, chairs, and other furniture are all common sources of VOCs.
Carpets: That “new carpet smell” is not a good thing. Carpets can emit VOCs for five or more years (though off-gassing decreases after the first few months).
Electronics: Computers and their keyboards are common off-gassers. During the printing process, laser printers and photocopiers can release ozone, which can irritate the nose, lungs, and throat.
Particleboard and plywood: These materials are present in virtually any home, whether in construction materials or furniture. Unfortunately, the glue that holds them together almost always contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Household cleaners: Despite containing an enormous number of toxic contaminants and VOCs, the majority of cleaning products are not assessed for safety. Soaps, glass cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, polishes, and detergents are all common sources of VOCs.
Dryer sheets: They may smell nice, but these sheets off-gas a whole host of chemicals. In fact, the Material Safety Data Sheet warns against dryer sheets, citing them as a cause of eye and skin irritation.
Nail polish remover: Your average bottle of nail polish remover likely contains acetone, a nasty and harmful chemical. Breathing acetone can cause issues ranging from irritation of the nose, throat, lungs, or eyes to headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
Other household goods: Toys, tennis balls, paints, wallpaper, adhesives, cabinetry, bedding, cars, varnishes, floor coverings, fireplaces, wood burning stoves, vinyl, plastics, cosmetics, air fresheners, moth balls, and newspapers all frequently off-gas harmful chemicals.
So what can you do?
Conduct a home inventory. Survey your own home to determine possible sources of VOCs and consider removing them from your home. Obviously, you can’t just get rid of your couch, but perhaps there’s something off-gassing that you don’t need or use. Whenever possible, safely dispose of them. You can find out how by checking with your local government.
Read the label. Choose no- or low-VOC products whenever possible. If a product isn’t clearly labeled, call the manufacturer or check their website. Check new furniture to see if any of the components are certified by GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems, or SGS Group — three organizations that approve sustainable and low- or no-emitting products.
Purchase used products. Whether it’s an older home or a used couch, used products will have already undergone some of their highest off-gassing rates. If you can’t find a used product, try to purchase a floor model, which will have had some time to air out while outside of its packaging.
Circulate fresh air into the home. If possible, make sure your home has a heat recovery ventilator, your stove has an exhaust fan that vents to the outside, and every bathroom is equipped with a well-functioning exhaust fan. Also, open the windows for a few hours each day.
Air things out. Whenever possible, remove the packaging of a new product and allow it to sit for several days (or even weeks) outside or in a garage.
Remove wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s one of the worst offenders when it comes to VOC emissions (not to mention it harbors mold and dust mites). Can’t give up carpet completely? Replace the wall-to-wall stuff with area rugs. If throw rugs don’t cut it, replace traditional wall-to-wall carpet with one that doesn’t use adhesives.
Choose a less-toxic mattress. If you can afford it, look for a chemical-free wool, organic cotton, or natural latex mattress. Choose an organic cotton or wool futon if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option. At the very least, choose a used mattress, which will off-gas less than a new model. Also search for mattresses that are PBDE-free, and avoid versions made with polyurethane foam.
Choose solid wood furniture. It’s a better alternative than products made with particleboard. Your best option is to choose FSC- or SFI-certified products, which are required to meet certain standards for health and sustainability. In general, try to avoid furniture made with cheap plywood, and choose products that utilize non-toxic, water-based glues.
Use computers wisely. Aim to use computers in well-ventilated areas, and take frequent breaks away from the computer (ideally in fresh, outdoor air).
Use a dehumidifier. Many chemicals off-gas at greater rates in higher temperatures and humidity. Keep the humidity below 45 percent to help limit these emissions.
Decorate with plants. Houseplants are amazing at reducing or even eliminating VOCs in the home. Click here to read our blog about it!
Follow manufacturer’s directions. For example, if a product’s label instructs you to wear a mask or to use it in a well-ventilated area, do so. Those warnings are there for a reason, and following usage directions can help reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Often found in linoleum, upholstery, and shower curtains, there’s pretty much nothing redeemable about the health properties of this product. It’s one of the most commonly used plastics, so eliminating it from your home can be tough, but the effort is worth it if you’re looking to cut back on negative health effects.
Avoid flame retardants. This can be difficult feat when it comes to furniture (particularly couches and mattresses), but your health will be better. If you’re not sure whether a product contains flame retardants, call the manufacturer.
Choose unscented products. Most artificially scented products are full of VOCs. Whenever possible, opt for unscented versions.
Wait until summer (or spring). Paint, remodel, or purchase new furniture when the weather is warm. That way, you can leave the windows open.
Protect yourself. Eating a healthy diet can make a big difference in how our body tackles these environmental toxins. These chemicals can cause free radicals within the body, and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables help eliminate free radicals and the damage they cause.
But one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body reduces naturally with exposure to these chemicals. It also reduces with stress and age, so as time goes on, your body is becoming less and less protected.