At a time when many school districts are having to re-outfit their classrooms to meet COVID-19 physical distancing requirements while also trying to increase air quality to help combat the virus, it’s becoming apparent that unfortunately some of the new furniture purchasing choices being made – often because of budget or procurement stipulations – are exacerbating air pollution problems.
Off-gassing in new school furniture happens because organic chemicals in liquid or solid form can be trapped during the manufacture of certain goods. Eventually, the product will release these chemicals as particulate matter and gases, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
It’s estimated that VOC concentrations in indoor air are typically two to five times higher than those found in outdoor air. Because of the prevalence of VOCs in manufacturing, a wide variety of products can be potential sources of off-gassing. These VOCs evaporate, or off-gas, at room temperature, causing that “new” smell that most consumers are familiar with. Common VOCs found are benzene, toluene, styrene and formaldehyde.
Note: You cannot always smell the presence of VOCs in your air. Just because a product does not smell—or has stopped smelling—it does not mean that it is not emitting VOCs.
Off-gassing and your health
Exposure to VOCs can have short- and long-term effects on your health. Individual effects will vary depending on the type of VOC, the concentration in the air and the length of exposure time. VOCs can cause headaches, nausea, loss of coordination and eye, nose and throat irritation. More serious health effects can include damage to the kidneys, liver or central nervous system, as well as some forms of cancer.
Symptoms of VOC exposure can include:
- Skin irritation or allergic reaction
- Eye irritation
- Difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Nausea and vomiting
Therefore it’s incredibly important for school districts and administrators to understand the risks when buying new school furniture, and evaluate the environmental realities of products and how they fit into their school health and wellness plans. We understand it is a complicated process, especially when there are often tight budget considerations and existing procurement vendors and protocols to navigate. But this is the health of our students and educators we’re talking about. Buying cheaper furniture that’s travelled across the world, increasing pressure on the climate crisis to meet physical distancing health concerns, but then adds to air quality health concerns needs addressing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division has published a competitive funding opportunity for projects and programs that are aimed at reducing public exposure to indoor air pollutants. Projects should reduce indoor air risks and yield measurable environmental and public health outcomes in one or more priority areas: radon, indoor environmental asthma triggers, comprehensive indoor air risk reduction. Applications will be accepted through Sept. 15, 2020. Submit through grants.gov and find more information here.
The Natural Pod mission has always been to create better, healthier learning environments that support 21st century learning outcomes. By being proactive with your space design now, you can create healthy learning spaces while also making smart investments for the future. All our furniture products are VOC free, environmentally responsible, and are designed to adapt over the long-term. Our flexible designs meet the current physical distancing requirements, but are designed to adapt to a more collaborative style of learning when restrictions are lessened.