How long do wood sealers emit VOCs after they dry?
Originally published January 28, 2013 in the Green Home Guide, a service of the U.S. Green Building Council
Q: I have finished 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!
—asked by Elizabeth,
A: Wood sealers can be water-based or oil-based and both can contain volatile organic compounds. How much is acceptable to the government and how much 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.
Factors to consider
The length of time a product off-gases depends on several things such as:
- which chemicals are involved
- how much was initially applied to the wood
- what temperature and humidity levels are in your home to help dry them out
- how well your home is ventilated, i.e. number of air exchanges each hour, and
- 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 dust and job site chemicals. So, to them, there is no apparent danger.
We have found that products that are exposed to the air dissipate faster than those inside a cabinet, for example. It’s not uncommon to stick your head inside an old cabinet 10-15 years old and still smell formaldehyde.
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 on this subject that you might find useful. A Deeper Look at VOCs and Formaldehyde
How are VOCs measured?
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 be more exact, take a typical architectural coating rule in the state of California. It states that the VOC limit for lacquers for most counties is 550 grams/liter. To translate into lbs/gal divide by 119.95 and you get 4.58 lbs/gal. That means the 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.
If it bothers you in any way, trust your instincts and leave the room and/or take measures to mitigate the offgassing. There are some additional articles posted on our website that discuss ways to reduce or eliminate off-gassing from sealers. I think you may find them useful. Offgassing Articles