Q: My husband and I stayed at a friend's house for the weekend, but there was a strong chemical odor. I got a headache from the smell and we had to go to a hotel. They had new cabinets, and vinyl flooring that looks like tile. Is this an example of off-gassing and VOCs? We want to remodel our kitchen next year but don't want anything to smell that bad. How can we avoid this issue?
A: Bad chemical odors in the home, not to mention kitchens, can be frustrating but are not all that uncommon. Common sources include carpet, paints, and products made with formaldehyde or that have high VOCs — volatile organic compounds. Unfortunately, there aren't ingredients listed on kitchen cabinets or floors, so it's hard to tell exactly what could have caused the odor in your friend's kitchen. But definitely use your experience as inspiration to carefully research the products you choose for your new kitchen design.
Most every material used in houses has some sort of odor. Some are pleasant and familiar to a lot of people, such as unfinished wood. Some products, such as stone or quartz counter tops, don't really have an odor, but the adhesive used to attach them to the kitchen cabinets can be horrible. Some odors are toxic. Other smells are irritating to people, even if what produces it is not toxic. To complicate things, some materials smell worse when they're new, and others develop an odor over time.
Regardless of the source, products like these (and bad odors in general) don't contribute to a welcoming or healthy home. When you go shopping for your kitchen finishes, take note if you get a headache as you walk through the showroom or store.
Ask about low- or no-VOC products whenever you can, especially in paints and finishes. VOCs are common in petroleum-based products and are particularly irritating. You may need to leave your house for a while or take other precautions to protect yourself during remodeling, even if you use low- or no-VOC products. Tell your contractor about your sensitivities.
Pay special attention to any kind of foam and soft or rubbery finishes, such as vinyl floors, carpet, and carpet backing, flexible pipes, paints, primers, sealers, and other finishes. New mattresses, seat cushions, and fabric can also have overpowering odors. One surprising example I just learned about is the rubbery soundproofing on the underside of some stainless steel sinks. Mention this to your friends.
Selecting low-VOC products may increase your budget, but your health is worth it.