Zero-VOC Me

Reader Contribution by Staff
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I am an Indian immigrant with brilliant, loving parents who encouraged me to use my head, not my hands. My father spent most of his days peering into a microscope. He did not chop wood or carry water. We did not DIY. Therefore, it’s not surprising that when the gentleman who came to look at my floors said, “Your first floor is oak and your second floor is maple,” it meant nothing to me. In my head, wood was wood, covered by bark. Different trees had different grains and hues, but I was under the impression that any wood could be stained any color. I was wrong.

The primary lesson I learned in my first weeks of home ownership was to let go of expectations. My friend Carol said, “Your house is like a living being. There is only so much you can change.” This was confirmed on a late Friday night when the heavily scratched, damaged and shellacked floors that had been one consistent color were now three colors. (The stairs were a third type of wood — yellow pine.)

The floors are now becoming beautiful. (Lesson 2: Nothing is ever really done right the first time.) And they turned out differently than I expected. (See Lesson 1.)

Let me rewind and explain how I got here. I met Andy, a floor specialist focused on historical restoration, and one of three floor people I interviewed to refinish my floors. (Lesson 3: Get multiple bids to understand the range of costs and then go with your gut.) I went with Andy because he gave me the best offer and I saw how much he loved the wood. He shoehorned my project into his schedule and there is still more to be done — but we are well on our way. (Lesson 4: Do not shoehorn. Always leave room for the unknown: a broken sander, poor lighting or bad weather.)

I told Andy that using low-impact materials was a must and he agreed to share his thoughts on what he used and loved, as well as being open to trying new products that I never had the chance to use, but wanted to try.

The products I sought had limited volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are in everything from solvents to cleaning products, paints to varnishes, drycleaning to permanent markers. Depending on their concentration and your sensitivities, they can cause headaches and nausea, trigger allergies or damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. VOCs such as formaldehyde are known carcinogens. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “Studies have found that levels of several organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.”

So why is this stuff in our most common household products? It’s disturbing that EPA regulates some VOCs in industrial settings as part of the Clean Air Act, but there is scant oversight of the products we use within our homes. The Food and Drug Administration requires a warning label if substances are toxic but does not require any labeling of what’s actually in the product. Lesson 5: Caveat emptor, or “Let the buyer beware.”

I am here to help in whatever ways I can (take a look at my post on our chemical body burden). Also know there are many resources on the Web that will help limit exposure to a host of toxins. I am a big fan of the findings from Environmental Working Group and the database on toxic chemicals in everyday products from Michigan’s Ecology Center.

OK, back to the floors. For those of you who are as (un)familiar with the refinishing process as I was, it starts with sanding and the infiltration of sawdust into every cranny of your house. There was water damage and a lot of markings on the dull floors so next came the stain. As much as I wanted to use something water-based, Andy strongly recommended an oil-based stain because of its durability. I hesitated but ultimately relented. He assured me it was just one coat and would get sandwiched between many more layers of stuff. (I think he explained the refinishing process to me about five times. Lesson 6: Patience is a virtue for all involved.)

Andy then added a coat of BonaKemi DriFast Sealer. Bona is a family-owned company that was founded right around the time my house was born (in 1918) and its products are low-VOC and GreenGuard-certified for Indoor Air Quality within the organization’s more stringent Children and Schools program. It is highly effective, but is an oil-modified product, which means it is petroleum-based.

I suggested to Andy that we give one more product a shot — an AFM Safecoat finish of Polyureseal BP — a water-based clear gloss. AFM Safecoat products are marketed as ideal for people with chemical sensitivities. With Scientific Certification Systems’ Indoor Advantage Gold certification and qualification for LEED green building standards, AFM is a fixture in most healthy homes.

Certifications are frustrating because there are so many of them, but some oversight is better than none. And, in that same vein, some improvement is better than none. Both the BonaKemi and AFM Safecoat products emit odors for which I was unprepared. Jay Watts, the vice president of AFM, explained to me in an e-mail, “Clear-urethane-type coatings traditionally have stronger application and curing emissions than other coatings. They actually harden or cure over a seven- to 10-day period. During the first days after the install, the fumes are at their zenith. With good ventilation, the air quality can be successfully monitored and the curing kept on track. Typically the odors will dissipate dramatically after 36 to 48 hours with low declining emissions through that hardening process.”

He was right. Within two days, the air felt clearer. Jay went on to say, “One other factor that weighs on the emissions/cure cycle is the dry time allowed between coats, the thickness of those coats and the conditions under which the product is being applied. In situations where re-coats are too quickly done, heavy coat application and poor ventilation or high humidity are present, then the whole process will be retarded.” Because my floors were sandwiched between other jobs, this was true for me, too.

I like the fact that the AFM product can be thinned with water. We used less than we thought, which means I have some leftover for the hardwood floors lurking under the torn linoleum in my kitchen. The floors need another coat of gloss but are so much prettier than they were a week ago.

And now for my final lesson of the week: Know thyself. Could I have used wax and wood oils and perhaps achieved a similar effect? Maybe. Was I prepared to buff my floors every year? Not a chance. I sought out products that are significantly healthier for my loved ones and me — and still allow me to have a life. (I would love to be the person who bakes bread, knits scarves, chops wood and carries water, but I think we’ve established that isn’t exactly part of my DNA … yet.) 

Every step of this process is emotional and personal. And every step gets me closer to a cleaner, greener home. Follow my journey here and on Twitter @simransethi.


Photo by Simran Sethi