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Green, Greenwashing & Chemical Sensitivities

StatisticsReview of Green Building Supply

How to Test a New Product for Chemical Sensitivity

People have different tolerances to different chemicals. Although all our products can be used by most chemically sensitive individuals, it's important for you to test each product before using it. Testing can be quick and easy.

Below is an objective testing procedure we recommend for personal sensitivity to any new product. If you're working with a doctor or health professional, please consult with her/him on this process.

Step #1: Obtain a fresh or new sample

If it's a liquid, make sure it has not been sitting on the shelf for more than a few months. If it's a solid, like flooring, make sure it has been recently cut from a larger sample. This can be difficult as the manufactured date of a product may not be known by the vendor. But do your best.

Step #2: Apply a small amount of product to a surface that is non-irritating

You want to experience the effects of this new product by itself first, before testing on something else. Follow the manufacturers instructions carefully. If it's a liquid, paint it on a surface that's clean, dry and has no other finishes on it; use something inert like glass or metal. Be sure the surface you apply it to has no off-gassing of its own. If there's a finish already on the surface, this sample may interact with it.

Please note that water-based finishes contain lots of water and may interact with the surface of the material you're applying it to. As water soaks into the surface, it may react with a chemical hidden beneath the surface and cause it to be released into the atmosphere. Always use small quantities at first. If there is no reaction, let it dry and then try a larger area. Don't rush to apply a product too thickly to cover up what's underneath it. Instead, apply multiple thin coats.

Step #3: Let the test product dry thoroughly

This could take several hours.. However, small and thinly-applied samples will dry faster.

Step #4: Smell the dried product

If you notice some reaction — or you don't — make note of it. This is a small sample, and at this point, you could test a larger one if you wish.

Step #5: Find a small confined space that is non-irritating

We want to isolate the chemical smells of the test sample from other normal room smells. Therefore, use a confined space that has no odor so the effects will be more noticeable. This is your experimental control. Automobiles (not new ones) or large glass jars with secure lids are good choices for small confined spaces.

Step #6: Expose the test sample to heat

Heat accelerates the emissions of VOCs in liquids and solids. Exposure should be for 30-60 minutes; the longer the better. The sample does not have to sit in direct sun, but it needs to be in a place that is much warmer than the normal ambient temperature. If no car or sun is available, use a heat lamp directed on a sealed glass jar.

Remember, you need to test a dried sample, not fresh liquid out of the container.

Step #7: Repeat and record the results

Repetition is part of the scientific method. If you can repeat any part of this experiment, it will provide a more reliable result. If concerned, be sure to repeat test #6.

By going through this simple procedure, you will have a good and reliable indication of whether this new product is acceptable to your physiology or not.

Step #8: Now comes the real test

Will it create an odor when applied to your new or remodeled surface? If it does, you'll now know what it smells like on its own which will give you some basis for comparison. Chances are good that any new odor will be due to the interaction with the old substrate you're applying it to.

Pay attention to the cleanliness of the new surface, how you or your contractor are applying the new product and the conditions inside the room. They may all have an effect on you.

Tips worth considering

  • Don't trust green or eco-friendly labels, slick salespeople or experienced contractors. You must test every new product yourself for your own sensitivities
  • Always test a small amount in an inconspicuous area before applying it to the entire surface.
  • Trust your instincts. Learn how to say "No" when it doesn't seem right.
  • Insist that your contractor read the complete application instructions with you aloud before he/she begins.
  • Make sure the surface you're finishing is clean, dry and free of oil, wax and other contaminants. None of these can be seen easily; they must be tested.
  • Educate yourself about VOCs and health so you know the inside story. Our article entitled IAQ and Your Health: A deeper look at VOCs and formaldehyde emissions may be helpful.
  • Make personal testing a standard routine when using any new product.
  • Consult a health practitioner knowledgeable in this area if you have any concerns.

Please call us at 800-405-0222 if you need information about how to test a product. We're happy to consult on this or any sustainability issue.

Copyright © 2011 Joel Hirshberg All rights reserved.