Q: Why is my new piece of furniture emitting a nasty odor? Should I be concerned about my health?

 

This spring, I’ve been busy doing projects around the house, getting things organized and taking on dozens of projects to make my house fresh and clean. Oh, the irony!  One of my recent projects was to build a new media cabinet I bought online from Crate and Barrel. This is one of the only pieces of “new” furniture I have ever bought and while it’s beautiful and was easy to put together, there’s a smell that it emits that’s becoming unbearable. I built it Saturday, and four days later, the smell seems to be getting worse and even when I leave my house, I can still smell it. I did some research online and was shocked to see how many other people are impacted by toxic smells and chemicals coming from new furniture, rugs and other household products. Some people refer to this as “off-gassing.” What is that?

 

I noticed some people take their new furniture out of the house and store it in a garage to let the smell disappear, but I do not have a garage. What should I do? Should I get rid of it? Should I be concerned about how this might impact the health of me, my family and my dog? Why is this happening, and why do so few people know about it? People report experiencing headaches, sore throats and respiratory problems. I have read that the problems are related to products made in China, swathed in formaldehyde, etc. What is the deal, Matt? Please help. I cannot breathe, and even at my office far from my home, I can still smell “that smell.”

 

Grossed Out in Georgia 

 

A: Hey Grossed Out,

 

Jeesh. Sorry to hear about your beautiful but stinky — just curious, does it reek of pickles? — new media cabinet. There’s nothing more frustrating than conquering the headache that is furniture assembly to find that the headache doesn’t end thanks to off-gassed chemicals. And off-gassing, by the way, is the natural evaporation of a type of indoor-air-quality-compromising pollutant that you may be already familiar with: volatile organic compounds. You may be most familiar with the VOCs in the context of paints, stains and carpets, but they can exist in a variety of chemical-treated products.

 

The reports that you’ve been reading about off-gassing are correct. In many cases, the offending products are indeed made in China and swathed in formaldehyde, although this isn’t always the case. China often takes the blame because so much is made there and quality control is often lacking, but when it comes down to it, the manufacture of off-gassing furniture knows no geographic boundaries. And formaldehyde is a common culprit because it’s used to cure particleboard, pressed-wood and plywood, all manufactured composite woods. In reality, a stinky smorgasbord of chemicals can off-gas, not just formaldehyde, so while it’s good to be aware of the “F” word, don’t restrict yourself to it.

 

And yep, when folks are afflicted by the side-effects — headaches, dizziness, respiratory problems, nausea, skin irritation, shortness of breath, etc. — of chemically treated furniture, it’s a standard practice to place them outdoors to allow them to “breathe.” However, this doesn’t seem to be an option for you, so I’d recommend opening windows for proper ventilation, running air purifiers, and placing bowls of baking soda, white vinegar, and activated charcoal in and around your media cabinet. Also, look into the Bad Air Sponge, a great, inexpensive product that I use to conquer unsavory odors in my apartment.

 

If you continue to be plagued by the stench of your recent purchase (sometimes it goes away, sometimes it doesn’t), I’d look into contacting Crate & Barrel to see if you can return it. “It makes me physically ill” is a much more valid reason to return an item than “I don’t like the way it looks.” To steer clear of unpleasant situations like this in the future, here’s a few things to keep in mind before making a furniture purchase:

 

  • Avoid furniture made from formaldehyde-treated composite woods and opt for “real” (preferably sustainable) wood furniture. In this day and age, this may prove to be difficult, so always consider going the vintage/secondhand route.
  • Consider buying a floor model, if possible. This way, the furnishing has had an ample amount of time to off-gas before it enters your home. Plus, you’ll probably save a few bucks.
  • Some furniture manufacturers/retailers give you the option of letting your purchase off-gas in their warehouse for a few days before you receive it. The extra wait may not be fun but if you’ve suffered adverse reactions from new furniture before, it’s well worth it. Just ask if this is possible.
  • Although the looks and dimensions of a piece of furniture are paramount when making a purchase, it does help to see where exactly it was manufactured. China should set off alarms although, again, furniture made anywhere can be treated with chemicals.
  • Ensure that any paints, stains and finishes used on the furniture are low- or no-VOC.
  • If shopping for upholstered furniture, make sure it's not treated with toxic flame retardants (PDBEs) or are marketed as being “stain-resistant.”
 

Good luck, Grossed Out. I wouldn’t let this unsavory experience dissuade you from buying any “new” pieces of furniture since there are plenty of companies out there manufacturing quality, nontoxic items. However, I would practice caution when making future purchases. Don’t let yourself be distracted by good looks, low price and ease of assembly. It may come back to haunt you in the end in the form of a pungent pickle smell.

 

— Matt

 

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

 

Photo: art&design/Shutterstock; MNN homepage photo: Dizeloid/iStockphoto