When you enter a freshly painted room, a number of things happen to your body. Some things are more recognisable than others. What may seem like just a headache from things such as paint fumes however, is something far more sinister – something a little bit of ventilation and a night sleeping on the couch may not be able to fix. Australia’s approach to addressing these issues are sub standard and hurting us, our environment, and our families. There are however, pragmatic ways to go about rectifying these otherwise unnoticed dangers we create for ourselves.
When we head towards the cleaning supplies aisle in the supermarket or walk into a freshly painted room, we notice certain reactions immediately. They typically include noticing the distinctive chemical smell, akin to paint fumes, irritated eyes, nose, throat, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, or even nausea. Some also experience quite severe fatigue and lethargy.
This is caused by VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in the air we breathe. They often have an odour, but not always. VOCs are used in paints, varnishes, adhesives, synthetic fabrics, cleaning supplies, air fresheners and sprays. When used in indoor settings, VOCs make their way to the surface of walls, furniture and other household features. Once on the surface, they ‘offgas’ – meaning their chemicals are emitted into the surrounding air. Most of this occurs when the product is new, however, walls, objects and products containing VOCs continue to offgas for many years after.
These symptoms are just a small part of the problems VOCs create for your body. Being exposed to these chemicals, as you might when you walk into a freshly painted room, can be so harmful that it causes serious illnesses. This includes an increased risk of bladder and lung cancer, especially for those working with paint or household cleaners. For those either working or living in places that have been freshly painted, or use high VOC products in any form, issues beyond the immediate symptoms can be shortness of breath and coughing, fevers, muscle aches, asthma, an allergic response, and heightened cancer risks. Even a weekend paint job can do more harm than you might think.
Most Australians spend more than 90% of their time indoors, leading to a concern about the possible impacts of indoor air quality on our health. This concern is justified when indoor pollutant concentrates exceed outdoor levels! When it comes to air pollution, we tend to think in terms of the outdoors – we worry about smoke stacks, traffic jams, and other industrial factors that pump pollutants into the (outdoors) air we breathe. But we often ignore our indoor air quality, which can be just as toxic for us, and sometimes moreso. Paints and other products containing VOCs will continue to offgas immediately after painting, and for a long time following. Even after the smell has disappeared, it isn’t safe. And these emissions are not only harmful to our health, but contribute to environmental degradation, such as ground-level ozone formation. Furthermore, a CSIRO study found that established buildings have higher VOC levels compared to outdoor levels, and much that levels are much higher in new homes.
Unlike the US or European guidelines on VOCs, Australia has unclear and easily skirted around guidelines for labelling. Meaning that unless you choose a paint, varnish, or cleaning product that clearly labels ingredients and contains no (rather than low) VOCs, in Australia unfortunately it is impossible to know what kind of risk you are exposing yourself and others to. Advice is to eliminate VOCs from the home by selecting non-toxic paints and varnishes, as well as cleaning products, ensuring that what literally covers more than 80% of all surfaces in your house isn’t causing you and your family ill health. Opening doors and windows several times a day to exchange the air and reduce the build-up of VOCs and other indoor air contaminants is also useful, however, seems more like a band aid solution. As a last resort, indoor plants are known to help clear the indoor air of toxins – but again, this doesn’t address the root problem.
Low indoor air quality is the source of too many health problems in Australia, stemming from the avoidable situation of VOC exposure from painted walls and many other household objects. It is easy to overlook these health hazards – they’re common, and invisible to untrained eyes – however, there are easy and affordable alternatives, and the health risks simply from walking into a freshly painted room are far too high to ignore.