Our contractors used polyurethane varnish on our wood floors. When is it safe to be in our home?

The fumes and odors left behind after restoring wood flooring can be a headache—literally! Many common products used to refinish wood flooring contain harmful chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The off-gassing from these chemicals pose a variety of long-term and short-term health effects—from headaches and nausea to damage to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system.

Unfortunately, off-gassing may continue for days, weeks and even months, depending on many variables, like how much of the product was used and the temperature and humidity in the home. The best way to mitigate the off-gassing of a finish that has been applied to a floor is to follow a few steps:

  • Turn up the heat to speed up drying time.
  • Ventilate the room by opening windows and doors (and keep them open as long as possible).
  • Turn on multiple fans to blow fumes outside.
  • Use air purifiers to clean up the air (but note that VOCs can't be filtered out of the air).
  • Use an encapsulating sealer designer to prevent VOCs from off-gassing.

When shopping for building materials in the future, be picky. Take a close look at the ingredients in the materials before you bring them home. The green building community has been a longtime advocate for using low-emitting materials. The low-emitting materials credit in LEED caps VOC content at 250 g/l for clear wood finishes such as varnishes and lacquers, and recommends choosing products that comply with the California Department of Public Health Standard Method V1.1–2010, CA Section 01350, considered the most advanced testing procedure used in the marketplace.

Since most products don’t generally tout this accomplishment, an easier way is to choose low-emitting products that have been third-party-certified and labeled by organizations such as GREENGUARD and GreenSeal. And be cautious of manufacturer claims of “no VOC,” “natural” or “alternative.”

Research the chemicals listed on the material safety data sheet (MSDS), especially when selecting materials such as adhesives, paints, carpets, composite wood products and furniture.