Pollutants from furniture and building materials

Household products like furniture, mattresses, cabinets, building materials, wallpaper, cleaning products and glues can emit gases into your indoor air. This is known as "off-gassing." Also, insulation containing asbestos and paint containing lead can release dust if disturbed or removed during renovations.

Learn more about health risks and safety tips for reducing pollutants from household products and building materials.

Did you know?

Some old building materials in your home may contain substances (like asbestos and lead), that if disturbed may pose a risk to your health. Be careful when doing renovations or repairs, so that you don't expose your family to any unnecessary health risks.


Health risks

Asbestos presents a health risk only when there are fibres in the air that you breathe. When inhaled in large amounts, asbestos fibres can cause:

  • asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult)
  • mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or stomach cavity)
  • lung cancer

The link between asbestos and other types of cancers is less clear. Smoking, combined with inhaling asbestos, greatly increases your risk of lung cancer.

Safety tips

If asbestos fibres are sealed or tightly bound in a product (like siding or floor tiles), there are no major health risks. These products are very dense and do not release many fibres under normal use. But fibres may be released if these products are cut or damaged.

  • Hire a professional. If you are planning renovations and your home has building materials that you think may contain asbestos (like insulation, exterior siding, floor or ceiling tiles), contact a trained and qualified asbestos professional. They can test for asbestos and carry out the renovations in a controlled and safe way.
  • Never try to remove insulation containing asbestos yourself. Hire a trained and qualified asbestos professional to remove vermiculite insulation containing asbestos.

See also:

Flame retardants (PBDEs)

Polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) are man-made chemicals added to a wide variety of consumer products to make them less likely to catch fire.

PBDE flame retardants are added to some plastics, electrical and electronic equipment, upholstered furniture, non-clothing textiles and foam products.

PBDEs have been found both in the environment and in humans, including in human breast milk. While levels in humans are very low, they have been increasing with time, and are higher in North Americans than in Europeans.

Health risks

In humans exposed to PBDEs, there is no clear evidence of any health problems.

In studies on rats and mice exposed to PBDEs, effects on behavioural development, nervous system development, and on the liver and thyroid have been seen. There is also some very limited evidence that PBDEs may cause cancer in lab animals. But the animals were exposed to much higher levels than what humans are exposed to in Canada.

Safety tips

If you are concerned about PBDE flame retardants:

  • Clean your house often. PBDEs can be found in house dust. This is especially important if you have young children who may have more contact with house dust when playing on the floor or furniture.
  • Cover or replace any exposed carpet padding or foam pads. This applies to both upholstered furniture and car seats.


Formaldehyde is a colourless gas that is widely used around the world as a disinfectant and preservative. It is also used in many household products and building materials. When found at high levels in the air, it has a sharp smell.

Formaldehyde can be found at low levels in all Canadian homes and buildings. Sources of formaldehyde in indoor air include:

  • tobacco smoke
  • smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces
  • vehicle exhaust from attached garages
  • latex paints, glues, adhesives, varnishes and lacquers
  • wallpapers, cardboard and paper products
  • dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe polishes and carpet cleaners
  • some cosmetics (like nail polish and nail hardener)
  • some permanent press fabrics (like some curtains, sheets and clothing)
  • furniture, cabinets and building materials (made from particleboard, medium density fibreboard, hardwood, plywood paneling, and certain moulded plastics)

Health risks

Formaldehyde is an irritant. Short-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposure to moderate levels may also be linked to breathing problems and allergies, especially in children.

For industry workers who are regularly exposed to high levels, formaldehyde can cause cancer of the nasal cavity. The levels of formaldehyde in Canadian homes are well below the levels that cause cancer.

Safety tips

Reduce the level of formaldehyde inside your home by following these tips:

  • Don't let anyone smoke inside your home. Make your home and car smoke-free.
  • Keep fumes outside. Don't run engines (like cars, lawnmowers or snow blowers) in attached garages or near doors or windows.
  • Maintain wood stoves and furnaces. See Avoid wood smoke for safety tips.
  • Look for products made with low or no formaldehyde. Ask before you buy.
  • Wash permanent press clothing and sheets before you use them. Air out products like permanent press drapes before bringing them into your home.
  • Seal pressed wood products. Buy pressed wood furniture or cabinets with a plastic laminate or coating on all sides. Or seal them yourself at home.
  • Ventilate. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation during major painting or varnishing projects, or when installing wall-to-wall carpets using glues or adhesives.
  • Control moisture levels inside your home. When humidity levels are high, products tend to release formaldehyde into the air at a faster rate.

See also:


Find out how to reduce your exposure to lead.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a large family of chemicals that contain carbon and hydrogen. They can be released into indoor air from a number of sources, including:

  • cigarette smoke
  • household products (like air fresheners and furniture)
  • car exhaust
  • building materials (like varnish and glues)
  • personal care products (like hair sprays and nail polish)

Health risks

Some VOCs are more toxic than others. Some have no known health effects, while others are known carcinogens (like benzene). Although most VOCs probably pose little risk to our health at the levels commonly found in homes, the health effects of being exposed to these chemical substances over a long period of time is not known.

The health risk, if any, will depend on the levels you are exposed to, the length of time you are exposed, and your individual sensitivity to the chemical substance. Since your risk increases with exposure, it is a good idea to reduce VOC levels wherever possible, as a precaution.

Safety tips

Reduce the level of VOCs inside your home by following these tips:

  • Open the windows. Make sure there is enough ventilation during major painting or varnishing projects, or when installing wall-to-wall carpets using glue or adhesive.
  • Choose low-emission products when possible. Some products (like varnishes) that are labelled as "low emission" give off fewer VOCs.
  • Choose pump sprays instead of aerosols when possible. Personal care products without propellants (found in aerosols) contain fewer VOCs.
  • Don't let people smoke indoors. Second-hand smoke contains several VOCs, so make your home and car smoke-free.
  • Turn engines off. Do not run cars or other gas-powered engines in attached garages, and keep the door between your house and garage closed. Vehicle exhaust contains several VOCs and other pollutants.
  • Store fuels properly. Store gasoline or other fuels that can release VOCs into the air in proper containers. Do not store gasoline in your home.
  • Use chemical products as directed. Follow all safety and usage instructions on the label, including how to dispose of any leftover or unwanted products.

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