Once upon a time, when I was a young designer fresh out of school, I started working in an office furniture dealership. Day in and day out, I sat in a large warehouse-style building with no windows (except for the fixed glass storefront) amongst a large collection of new office chairs, tables and bookcases, and panel systems furniture. I noticed a terribly strong smell, something akin to “new car smell” times ten, and every day by around lunch time, I was nauseous and fighting a splitting headache.
Little did I know I was having my first major run-in with volatile organic compounds: VOC’s. I wouldn’t hear that term for many years to come, but though I had no name for it, it was obvious to me what it was. All that newly minted furniture was off-gassing. All the chemicals and solvents used in their manufacturing were evaporating into the air around me. I was breathing them in and smelling them, and it was making me sick.
After a few weeks, the nausea and headaches disappeared. I guess my body got used to it. No more problem, right? Um, no. Not quite. Our bodies are pretty amazing instruments. They can take a lot of abuse and are very adaptable, but just because your body has figured out a way to process whatever is assaulting it (be it too much food, alcohol, sunlight, chemical compounds, whatever), and you don’t perceive it directly through your senses so much, doesn’t mean these factors are no longer there. Sometimes your body hits the proverbial wall and reacts in ways that can’t be ignored and that’s when you know something is a) definitely wrong, and b) needs to change.
But until then, we put up with a lot, and we’re conditioned not to be alarmed. For instance, appreciating “new car smell,” not believing that laundry is truly clean unless it smells like bleach, the smell of a freshly painted room as a sign of newness and a healthy space, the use of plug-in air fresheners and fabric sprays and believing that the smell of flowers coming from an aerosol can means there are actually flowers in there, and my personal pet peeve: baby cologne. What is that about? As if the smell of a freshly bathed little baby needs improvement or camouflage?
Many people still don’t know what VOC’s are and/or don’t equate them with something harmful, because their bodies haven’t hit that wall yet. A friend of mine from Jamaica says they have a saying there: “if you can’t hear it, you’ve got to feel it.” Nothing beats personal experience. Just ask anybody affected by the Chinese drywall problem here in Florida (and elsewhere) if they know what VOC’s are. I’m sure they are very clear about the definition now compared to just a few short years ago.
Back in the early nineties, I worked with a client that was chemically sensitive to formaldehyde and asked us to design two wardrobe cabinets using wood without formaldehyde in it. That wasn’t easy back then. The cabinetmaker had to search high and low to find the lumber, and it was very expensive. I admit, we were skeptical about her sensitivity claims and there was a lot of pooh-poohing going on (which was exacerbated with the demand that the interior width of the drawers had to correspond exactly to the widths of her husband’s shirts when folded and placed side by side in rows of three! This appears on my list of Kooky Client Requests.), but we managed to get it done and she was happy. The point is we have so many choices, good choices, now for building products and interior finishes and furnishings that emit low or no VOC’s; paint, carpet, fabrics, furniture, glue and adhesives, caulking, cleaning products. The manufacturers and producers are making the shift, slowly but surely, and designers and architects are coming around too, but it comes down to a matter of the consumer knowing they have a choice and exercising it. Ask your building contractors and designers for environmentally-friendly and non-toxic products. Tell them of your interest and your concerns, and show that you value your health and the health of your loved ones. Don’t wait for a health crisis. The supply is growing, it’s time to start asserting the demand, and hopefully soon environmentally safe and non-toxic furnishings will be commonplace.