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Cheap Carpets And Other Bargains May Be Bad For Your Health

Looking for a bargain for your home may be hazardous to your health, particularly when it comes to fixtures, fittings and furniture – low-cost carpets, for example, are likely made with cheap glue that emit toxins into the air you breathe.

CEO of building performance technology company Tether, Brandon Van Blerk, said that the well-loved smell of new carpets – a trope that signifies excitement and novelty like the smell of a new car – is toxic.

Tether is a homegrown New Zealand building performance tech company that creates a range of software and hardware products designed, developed, and manufactured from the ground up in New Zealand. The company's proof-of-performance solutions enable data-driven insights into building performance through modelling, monitoring and data analysis.

Fresh carpet or new furniture can emit similar smells called ‘volatile organic compounds’ (VOCs) through a process known as off-gassing. The cheaper the fixture, the product, or the appliance, the more likely it will emit VOCs.

"In simple terms, off-gassing is the airborne release of a chemical in vapour form. Whenever a product smells, it's off-gassing. It happens the most when a product is new. But many products or materials continue off-gassing even after the 'new smell' has gone away.

"There are hundreds of VOCs out there and understanding what is harmful can be overwhelming. VOCs like formaldehyde, alcohol and ethanol, which are found in many cleaning products, can cause irritation and damage to your respiratory system," Van Blerk said.

VOCs are at their highest in new homes but start to deplete over time as a house begins to settle in. Other VOCs include propane or cooking gas, which can also be bad for health.

"Toxic adhesives aren't used today as much as they were in the past. Even formaldehyde is starting to drop in use as manufacturers find alternatives – but it is still likely to be present in cheap, low-cost products," Van Blerk said.

Chemical companies will say everything off-gasses, even pineapples and dinner plates. But some fumes are more toxic than others, and the chemicals from plastics and adhesives tend to be the worst.

"Prolonged exposure can cause headaches, respiratory illnesses, hormone disruption, allergies and a variety of serious illnesses. A compound like formaldehyde can even send a person to the hospital if enough of it is ingested," Van Blerk said.

Chemicals in furniture and carpet can increase the likelihood of developing serious illnesses.

"New Zealand has a high number of people suffering from respiratory illnesses, which probably also has something to do with the VOCs in houses," Van Blerk said.

He said the best action is to prevent VOCs from entering a home, school or office space at all. For example, VOCs plummet when using solid wood instead of composite furniture, using fabrics without chemical stains; and choosing recycled or vintage pieces (which off-gassed long ago).

Van Blerk highlighted a handful of other factors to keep in mind about VOCs.

1. Check the label

"Unfortunately, the toxic stuff is the cheap stuff, and it works well," Van Blerk said. "But it's not good for health. It will take more investigation, but make sure the product you introduce into your home will not off-gas with a toxic substance.

"You do not want to be breathing in horrible fumes for years to come in a new home," he said.

2. Use appliances correctly

Toasting bread in a toaster has been flagged by researchers as a source of VOCs and other toxic particles. But Van Blerk said this is no reason to throw the toaster out just yet.

"Bad things happen when people switch appliances on without thinking about how to use them correctly. Instead, learn how to operate a toaster effectively and ensure that the room has sufficient ventilation while the toaster is in use.

"In the same way, I would not suggest avoiding cleaning your house just because some cleaning products have VOCs. Instead, buy non-toxic cleaning products that don't emit VOCs," Van Blerk said.

3. Ensure good ventilation

Good ventilation may mitigate up to 90 per cent of the negative consequences of VOCs, Van Blerk said. However, New Zealand homes are generally built to be ventilated naturally (by opening a window or door), not mechanically.

Yet Van Blerk said the amount of air change achieved by opening a house window is relatively tiny – unless a window is opened on either side of the building during prevailing strong winds, which may be impractical during the winter months.

"Cheap mechanical ventilation systems can be installed for a few hundred dollars. As per the government's healthy home standards, these should be installed in the bathrooms and kitchens. But arguably, it is most important to get ventilation in the bedrooms. Unfortunately, there is no legislation for that," van Blerk said.

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