VOCs in New Construction – Buying New

Mar 14, 2019

New construction homes and commercial buildings are often viewed as a safer bet to avoid the headaches of older properties.  The rationale is that newer properties have fewer problems. While this may be true for some aspects, it is worth considering the negative effects of VOCs in new construction.

Sources: VOCs in New Construction

The major concern in new properties is chemical emissions from new building materials.  These chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Offgassing is the term used to describe the emission of chemicals from these materials.  Some examples of building materials that can off-gas when new are carpeting, flooring, cabinets, and paint. It’s not just building materials that give off VOCs. New furniture, cleaning products, and personal care products are also common sources for VOCs.

Common VOCs

VOCs are actually a grouping of over 10,000 individual chemicals.  Formaldehyde is a type of VOC that can off-gas from engineered wood materials such as flooring and other products.  It is described as a pungent, suffocating odor https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0293.html . Formaldehyde may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat along with coughing and wheezing https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0293.html . The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sets its recommended exposure limit at just 0.016 ppm https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/formaldehyde-factsheet.pdf .

Toluene is another common VOC that differs from formaldehyde.  Toluene can be found in paint and cleaning products such as degreasers.  Not only can toluene irritate the eyes and nose similar to formaldehyde, it can also cause confusion, euphoria, dizziness, anxiety, muscle fatigue, insomnia among other symptoms https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0619.html .  Toluene is what gives people huffing glue a “high”. Toluene and formaldehyde are just a few examples of the thousands of VOCs that exist.

Reducing VOCs

In new construction buildings, VOC levels are expected to be more elevated on the first day right after construction is completed.  As the building materials off-gas, the VOC levels will reduce over time.

The best way to address VOCs in new construction is to not bring them inside in the first place. To avoid high levels of VOCs in a property consider practicing source control.  For this method, the material that may emit VOCs is not used at all or a substitute is found. For example, using “green” or “natural” cleaning products that do not contain harsh chemicals or “low-VOC” or “no-VOC” paints.  Be aware that sneaky advertising may play a factor when labeling some of these low VOC alternatives. We like to recommend GreenGuard certified products. To read more about low VOC products, follow this link to a past blog post.

Continuous ventilation of the space will help reduce the VOC levels.  Introducing outdoor air ventilates the space, but depending on your location, you may run the risk of introducing outdoor air pollution like PM2.5 or humidity.  Installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) may be an alternative option that could improve the ventilation in your home. If you would like to learn more about increasing the ventilation in your home, click on this link to a past blog post.

There are air cleaners using sorbent media or photocatalysis to address VOCs, but I would consider these to be the last line of defense.


Old buildings can cause figurative headaches, but new buildings can cause literal headaches!

Before you get too concerned, remember that VOC levels in new construction will dissipate over time.  Avoiding products that emit high levels of VOCs and ventilating a newly constructed building can help lower the VOC levels quicker.

If you are buying a new home or commercial space and are concerned that the air quality may be compromised contact Indoor Science.  Our company can provide instantaneous total VOC readings in your property. We also offer laboratory-based testing for formaldehyde and VOCs.