What’s That Smell? It Could Be Your New House.

 In Construction, Formaldehyde, Health

About a week after the O’Byrne family moved into their dream home in Columbus, Ohio, the troubling symptoms began: itchy, watery eyes; sore throats; headaches.

“I started getting symptoms I just thought were allergies,” Sara O’Byrne told her local ABC station, adding one of her dogs had also begun displaying similar symptoms. “We thought maybe it was the dust from the newly built home.”

The two-story house also had a certain odor to it, she said, which they wrote off as a “new house smell.”

But then the couple received a letter from their builder alerting them — and neighbors in their newly-built development — that their brand new houses required remediation. After receiving numerous complaints, the development company determined that a formaldehyde-based coating on their floor joists was giving off a harmful odor and causing allergy-like symptoms. If left unchecked, the O’Byrnes learned, this off gassing could not only cause scratchy eyes, sore throats and nose bleeds but could also be carcinogenic.

“They told me to keep my windows open, especially in the basement. Keep the furnace going, the A/C and stuff on to circulate the air,” said O’Byrne.

“I’m not willing to compromise my family and my pet’s health and live in the home,” said Sara O’Byrne. She and her husband relocated their 5 kids and 3 dogs to a hotel 30 miles away from their dream home while considering remediation options.

The problem with formaldehyde

According to the Centers for Disease Control, formaldehyde is colorless, toxic gas that has a pungent smell and is being increasingly used in building materials — like wood lumber products and drywall — as a fire-retardant coating.

Formaldehyde can also be found in products like flooring, furniture, and fabric, so there are small amounts in nearly all homes. Formaldehyde levels are higher in:

  • Homes with smokers. Tobacco smoke contains formaldehyde so if you live a smoker, you are going to have trace amounts in your home.
  • Homes with new products or new construction. Formaldehyde levels are higher in new manufactured wood products such as laminate flooring and plywood and particle board furniture. Formaldehyde can also be found in some fabrics.
  • Homes built after 1990. Because they are better insulated, formaldehyde remains trapped in newer homes as less air is moving in and out.

How can you reduce formaldehyde in the home?

Choose home products with low or no formaldehyde for future purchases. Look for:

  • Furniture, wood cabinetry, or flooring made without urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues
  • Pressed-wood products that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no added formaldehyde (NAF) requirements
  • Products labeled “No VOC/Low VOC” (volatile organic compound)
  • Insulation that does not have UF foam

Reduce formaldehyde from new products:

  • Wash permanent-press clothing and curtains before using them.
  • Let new products release formaldehyde outside of your living space before you install or use them inside, for example in a garage or on a patio. If possible, keep them out of your living space until you can no longer smell a chemical odor.

How can formaldehyde in your home affect your health?

Slight levels of formaldehyde in the home generally don’t cause any health concerns but as levels rise, someone living in the home could experience irritation of:

  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Throat
  • Skin

Children, older adults and people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary order tend to be more affected. Breathing in very high levels of formaldehyde over many years has been linked to rare nose and throat cancers in certain workers.

When should you get your home tested for formaldehyde?

You should contact an expert to test the levels of formaldehyde in your home if you can smell strong chemical odors or are experiencing symptoms like breathing problems and irritation only when you are home.

Stock Environmental brings over two decades of experience when assessing the threat situation in your home. If you suspect higher than normal levels of formaldehyde, contact us at 732-383-5190 to schedule an appointment for testing.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has not established a safe level of formaldehyde for indoor air, an environmental consultant brought in to test the O’Byrne’s new home discovered over double the amount of acceptable levels set by the only state to do so — California.

“Is it upsetting?” asked Sara’s husband, Joe O’Byrne. “ “It is yeah, two months we spent living in (the house) and had no idea.”


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