There’s a growing demand for eco-friendly products, By Lori Harlan The smell of something new - a car, fresh paint or recently installed carpet - is instantly recognizable. While the scent may be appealing to some, the source is potentially dangerous chemicals being released into the air. The chemicals, called volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, evaporate in a process called off gassing, says Kevin Greene, manager of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s office of pollution prevention. VOCs are particularly high in common household products such as paints, stains and adhesives. Growing consumer demand and advances in the manufacturing process have created more environmentally friendly alternatives, Greene says. “People are increasingly aware that the exposure to potentially toxic vapors in the air can cause health problems,” he says. “They’re also looking for more opportunities where they can make an effort to protect the environment. By purchasing green products, they’re sending a message to manufacturers to produce products that are energy efficient, less toxic and made with recycled materials.” Oil-based paints emit potentially toxic vapors as they dry. Those vapors can cause nausea, dizziness, eye irritation and fatigue. Improvements in latex or water-based paint have made it as durable as oil-based paint, but less flammable and less toxic, according to Greene. In addition, when you use water-based paint, you can use water to thin it and to clean it up. That eliminates the need for paint thinner, which improves air quality, he says. In recent years, a number of manufacturers have introduced zero VOC paints, in addition to the low VOC products already available. When shopping for eco-friendly products, Duane Friend, natural resources management educator with the University of Illinois Extension, recommends reading labels. “You aren’t going to be free of emissions with any product, but you can find products with lower levels,” Friend says. “Look at the labels. They’ll say lower VOC emission’ or have a green product’ designation.” In addition to the directions on the product itself, some basic guidelines apply when using any chemical: Maximum ventilation minimizes the potential harmful effects of the chemical and should continue for as long as possible after the project is completed, Greene says. If possible, take the item outdoors or into an open garage to be stripped or painted. If the project is an indoor job, simply opening the windows helps in most cases, Greene says. While running a fan in the area is beneficial, central heating or air-conditioning fans should be turned off to avoid sending the chemicals throughout the house. In most houses, there’s not a lot of fresh air exchange, Friend says. “Houses already have some VOC products from when they were originally built. Naturally, the VOCs get higher with remodeling,” he says. “When the VOCs increase and you have a lack of air exchange, the indoor air quality isn’t as good.” Friend notes the incidence of asthma has increased dramatically over the years, and it’s partially attributable to air quality. Lower levels of VOCs can cause allergy-like symptoms and other respiratory problems. Higher levels can cause nervous system disorders, migraines and other serious issues. Family members who have asthma or are sensitive to chemical odors should leave the house during remodeling projects, Greene says. In addition, pregnant women should delegate the painting process, especially if oil-based paints are being used. “Also, paint the new baby’s nursery well before the baby arrives,” he adds.