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How safe is that ‘new smell’?

Britt Swoveland, RadonAware Manager at The Lung Association – British Columbia, shares her knowledge about indoor air quality.

Like most soon-to-be parents, my husband and I couldn’t wait to set up our baby’s room. We spent weeks looking for the perfect crib and matching dresser, material for sewing curtains, and of course, a new colour for all the walls. The bedding was new, the furniture was new and the walls received a fresh coat of paint.

A few weeks before my due date, I started to organize baby clothes, when I noticed a strong ‘chemical’ smell upon opening our new dresser’s drawers. I mentioned it to my husband. He smelled it too. We were both disappointed the new furniture that we’d taken weeks to pick out, reeked of chemicals.

Concerned for my baby’s health, I took stock of all the ‘new’ smells in the room: fresh paint; the mattress; and the stuffed toys, to name a few. I realized that I had basically created a chemical soup of ‘new smells’ that my baby, and his tiny little lungs, would be breathing in every day and night. Not good.

As a cautionary measure, when our baby boy arrived my husband and I decided he would sleep in our room for the first month, which turned into 3 months, and then 6 months – the time needed for all those ‘new smells’ to go away before moving him into his own room.

Today my son is 13 and a lot has changed.  Many new and improved ‘safe’ products can be found that don’t emit as much or any of those ‘new smells.’

So, what exactly, is that ‘new smell?’ Here’s some background on what you and your family are really breathing in:


Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases emitted into the air from products or processes.  Many VOCs are harmful to health, and some even cause cancer.


Common indoor sources of VOCs can be found in the following list:

  • Tobacco smoke, including second-hand smoke
  • Cleaning products and air fresheners
  • Paints and pesticides
  • Personal care products and cosmetics
  • Office equipment such as printers and copiers
  • Vehicle gasoline and car exhaust
  • Furniture or building products such as flooring, carpet, pressed wood products, andblinds

VOCs & Health

Many people will develop adverse reactions to VOCs, but may not recognize the source.  Eye, nose and throat irritation and difficulty breathing can all be reactions to breathing in VOCs. Some people also experience headaches, nausea and dizziness.


The best way to protect you and your family from VOCs is to avoid or limit their use. Nowadays, there are a host of safe options and alternatives that exist. Here are a few suggestions from my own repertoire:

  • When painting indoors, use products that are low, or no VOC. This information should be included on the label, or ask staff to direct you to a “No VOC” alternative.
  • Use only unscented and natural cleaning products. Vinegar, baking soda and castile soap can all be very effective as cleaning agents. For a helpful list of ingredients and formulas check out Queen of Green. (
  • Gluing agents, paints and sealants that emit VOCs are often used in the construction of new furniture. Consider purchasing a piece of second-hand furniture in excellent condition. Most, if not all off-gassing of VOCs will have occurred with an older piece of furniture.
  • Purchase unscented products. A few years ago, finding unscented personal care products was a challenge, (take my word for it!) but not any more: shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, lotions, and soaps can all be purchased ‘unscented.’
  • And of course, don’t smoke and never smoke in a home where there are children. Keep all buildings smoke-free. Tobacco smoke contains VOCs among other carcinogens.


For more information:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality

David Suzuki Foundation. ‘Dirty Dozen’ Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid

American Lung Association. Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals.