The best explanation of Off-Gassing that I’ve found (though it relates to building materials) can be found here: “Offgassing is the evaporation of volatile chemicals in non-metallic materials at normal atmospheric pressure. This means that building materials can release chemicals into the air through evaporation. This evaporation can continue for years after the products are initially installed which means you continue to breathe these chemicals as you work, sleep and relax in your home or office.”
What this means to us is that anything produced with chemicals can release them…and that means almost everything. For example, take formaldehyde. A surprising amount of products are manufactured with formaldehyde; clothes, books, magazines, furniture, drywall, shoes, belts, sunglasses, mouse pads, rugs, electronics. Of course that’s only one chemical…there are about 80,000 other chemicals in consumer products today (according to the EPA).
The point is that before you bring products into your home, they should be off-gassed. The best way to off-gas something is with sunlight. Outside with the sun beating down on the product, items can be artificially (or naturally depending on your perspective) off-gassed far more quickly than inside. It probably has something to do with the heat and constant fresh air removing the evaporating chemicals. The heat hastens the process and you can quickly get an item to a safe state to bring inside. For example, last month I left a new tent, a sun-shade visor for the car, and a trash can outside to off-gas in the heat for a few weeks.
Even after off-gassing outside, when the new item comes into the house, we test it out in a designated room. My wife rarely enters that room and if needed, we keep the door closed and a towel under the door to prevent fumes from escaping. If the room begins to smell or my wife gets sick, back outside it goes.
Below are some categories of products that I’d like to go into a bit more detail on.
Electronics: With electronics, you probably don’t want to have them exposed outside. Off-gas them in the garage if you have one. It will take longer but it’s better than having chemicals evaporating in your house and breathing them in constantly. It can take a long time. We had an all-in-one printer off-gas for close to two months before we allowed it inside. With one of our new TV’s, we purchased it open-box, off-gassed it in the garage for a month, and used it for three months only in that one specific room…which happens to be my game-room so “testing” it out there worked perfectly. When in use, electronics also off-gas faster since they typically operate at a higher temperature than when they’re off.
Furniture: New furniture can take years to off-gas. The worst offender is press-board/particle board which once again uses formaldehyde. Then there are the polishes, flame retardants, treated wood parts that are used. We recommend buying used and whole wood construction. The trade-off with used is the cushions may smell of fabric softener or scents. Learn more about formaldehyde in furniture here.
Clothes: Clothes don’t need to be off-gassed. They can be washed and dried…repeatedly. New clothes can take anywhere from two to five wash and dry cycles before they can be fully safe. Some clothes can be very hard to make safe if they’ve been stored or sold in an environment that is heavily perfumed. A common example here would be Abercrombie & Fitch. The toxicity level of their clothes is far too high due to their constant use of fragrance as a marketing tool.
Shoes: Shoes can be incredibly toxic. Leather, which is treated with dye and other chemicals to preserve it, plastic, rubber, and other synthetic materials are all toxic and can have a pervasive scent that takes months to go away. My wife has found that buying shoes at places where all of the shoes are on display, rather than in closed boxes, is the best route. Places like Ross and other discount stores usually do this. That way they’ve at least off-gassed to some extent in the store. With that said, she often still has to off-gas new shoes in our garage for up to 2 months before she’ll bring them in the house or wear them. Some shoes require less time – maybe 1 or 2 weeks. She tries to buy leather as it is often the least toxic of the bunch, although it still presents challenges (dies, chemical preservatives, etc).
Cars: Avoid buying new cars. Buy a used car at least a year old. There are a lot of plastics and sealants used in the creation of cars and it can be extremely toxic. That “new car smell” everyone loves is simply chemicals off-gassing at very high levels.
Mattresses: These are typically full of flame retardants that are extremely dangerous to a chemically sensitive person. You can buy an organic mattress but having never done this ourselves, I can’t say authoritatively if this is a risk free solution. Especially avoid memory foam since it’s one of the most toxic items. It’s loaded with chemicals and flame retardants and can make a bad situation far worse.
Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and the mail: Off-gassing doesn’t work so well here. Books and magazines use a lot of formaldehyde. You can’t really off-gas these since you would need to expose each page which isn’t practical. Buy used if possible. When you read, make sure you’re in a well ventilated area. Don’t keep these in your bedroom (put them in the off-gassing room). Or you can get a Kindle. The same applies for magazines and newspapers. There is simply no way to make a newspaper safe so cancel your subscriptions.
You also receive pamphlets, advertisements, and junk-mail that can have toxins depending on the type of material they’re made from or if they have perfume samples within. Throw these away immediately (outside).
Glass: Glass is the greatest material for the chemically sensitive individual. It never needs to be off-gassed and after one wash, is the safest storage material possible. Switch from plastic Tupperware to glass.
Summary: The rule of thumb here is that you should never bring a new item in your home until you’re sure it cannot expose you to more toxins. It’s absolutely necessary to make your bedroom the safest place in your house since that’s where you sleep. Without sufficient sleep, your body and immune system will be weak and can’t get stronger. Remove all potentially offending items from the bedroom – this can include furniture if it’s made with formaldehyde (a lot of wood furniture is, especially press-wood). Make sure any clothes, shoes or other items in the room aren’t toxic (no chemicals scents, etc). Cover mattress, blankets and pillows with dust protectors.