Question

How long do wood sealers emit VOCs after drying?

Asked by Elizabeth
Sacramento, CA

I have finished a dresser with VOC 2.1lbs/gal sealer--is this low? The sealer and lacquer are Valspar Premium WW Satin Lacquer and Valspar Sanding Sealer. Is it ok to put dry finished dresser in an infant's room? I'd like to avoid chemical off-gassing. Thanks!

Answer

Thanks for your questions. Wood sealers can be water-based or oil-based and both can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). What quantity is acceptable to the government and what is acceptable to you and your infant may be two different things.

Most people wish to avoid VOCs altogether, if possible, as they tend to continue emitting nasty fumes for weeks, months or even years after they have dried.  In some cases, the fumes may not be detectable by your nose, but they are still being breathed into your system and entering your blood stream.

The length of time a product off-gases once it’s dry depends on several things such as:

  1. which chemicals are involved,
  2. how much was initially applied to the wood,
  3. what temperature and humidity levels are in your home to help dry it out,
  4. how well your home is ventilated, i.e. number of air exchanges each hour, and
  5. just how sensitive your nose is to this particular chemical.  Some people can't smell VOCs at all because their olfactory sense has become desensitized due to overexposure to chemicals. So, to them, there is no apparent danger.

Avoidance or mitigation of the problem immediately is strongly recommended especially if there are infants in the home as they are much more sensitive. Breathing in even a tiny amount of VOCs on a continual basis can cause all types of physical problems. I've written a white paper (here) on this subject that you might find useful.

Most manufacturers use the unit of measure parts per million or grams/liter when analyzing the quantity of VOCs. There are different acceptable standards for each governmental agency and for each state and they are all changing regularly to keep up with the state of California which, in turn, is trying to keep up with standards in European countries.

To be more exact, the state of California has rules for VOC levels in architectural coatings (here). It states that the VOC limit for lacquers for most countries is 550 grams/liter.

  • To translate into lbs/gal divide by 119.95 and you get 4.58 lbs/gal.
  • That means the VOC content of 2.1lbs/gal for your product is below the limit set by those authorities.

That may sound good in theory, however, in practice, the lacquer may smell to your nose and may still contain other harmful ingredients not classified as a VOC.

I would not subject your child to anything that bothers you as it may bother them as well but they will not be able to communicate that to you.

  • Trust your instincts and leave the room and/or take measures to mitigate the off gassing.
  • There are some additional articles posted on our website (here) that discuss ways to reduce or eliminate off-gassing from sealers.

Unfortunately, there is little information from most manufacturers about the contents of their products, especially if they contain ingredients they don’t want you to know about or if they contain proprietary ingredients. In addition, they may use chemicals that they purchase from overseas and may not be able to verify the upstream source.  The standards in third world countries, especially, are not very high and should make you question any manufacturer that is not completely transparent about the nature of their product.

If you have further questions, please email me at joel@greenbuildingsupply.com or visit our website at www.greenbuildingsupply.com

 

For more information:

Read "I am remodeling my home and recently found out that I am pregnant. Is it safe for me to paint if I use no-VOC paints?" a Q&A answered by Florian Speier.

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