Polyurethane causing burning in throat?

Q: I have COPD and never use chemicals in my home; no air fresheners, no cleaning products, etc., only essential oils and vinegar. We recently bought a 37 year old home and did a complete renovation (hand scrub of mildew in crawl space and encapsulation, paint inside and out including paint over stained trim, new appliances, etc.)

I told my handyman/contractor that I wanted a “strong finish” on our beautiful oak floors in the living room and dining room so that grandkids wouldn’t destroy them. I didn’t think another thing about it as I was busy with so many other tasks with the renovation and move. He applied two coats of Minwax fast-drying polyurethane gloss “professional.” The last coat was applied a week ago Saturday and we began moving in the following Tuesday (two days later). I was in the home on Monday, one day after the final application, but in and out. I’ve been in and out of the house since, boxing up things from the old home, buying things to complete the renovation, furniture, appliances, etc., so I wasn’t in the home non-stop until three days ago. I was unpacking and putting up shelf paper so I was in the home all day and night. We’ve been sleeping in the home for a week, but our bedroom doesn’t have hardwoods; however, hardwoods are in the hallway outside our door and all through the living room and dining room where I was throughout the day.

I began having burning in my throat 3 days ago. I thought I was just getting what everyone else had, but I told my husband I didn’t really feel bad, that it felt different. The burning was up in the top of my throat too, into my mouth. Over the week we’ve been there, I thought the smell was from all the paint (and it could be that too). Well, last night at 11:00 as I sat in the living room, it occurred to me that the the smell I’ve been smelling is mostly coming from the polyurethane floor finish as is my sore throat! I never opened the house up until last night. Today I’ve left the home and left all windows open and turned on all ceiling fans.

MY QUESTION: Since I was in the home for a week before opening the home up and I’ve been exposed to the polyurethane for that long without any ventilation, have I sustained any long-term damage other than temporary irritation? I’m afraid to call my doctor as I know she’s going to scold me for this. I’ve called Georgia poison control and they tell me it’s temporary and that if used according to instructions, it’s fine. Of course, we know that’s what they have to say. My concern is that money talks and we all know there are ways around safety for these big corps. Please help. I’m hoping it is only temporary. What about my grandkids? Should we stay out of the home for a period of time? Should they not visit? Thank you!! (Sorry to be long winded.)

A: I’ve had a couple of worrisome complaints like yours over the course of more than 40 years working with finishes. I can’t honestly see how a floor finished for that many days, dried for days, can be the source of these health issues. All finishes have solvents or they would take forever to dry. But the solvents leave the coating within hours. I have become much more aware of lung issues since last year I appear to have developed asthma. I don’t know the answer. You were cleaning for mold. Is it possible you have spread some of that around? What about dust when working on the floors? I use a dust containment system so my work is very clean.

As a side note but perhaps still important, I have read that research indicates Vitamin A may be one key in overcoming lung issues. Think Juicing carrots. Lots of carrots.

I believe your home is safe for any average person. We are in a toxic world though. Maybe we should all be following a detox program regularly. I say that sincerely. Because when our bodies finally are over loaded we become hyper sensitive to agents which normally our bodies should be able to deal with.

Neurological health issues from acid cure

Q: My husband has neurological health issues from acid cure. Have you heard from others?

A: I haven’t used acid cure for decades. Even then, back when I was an employee, we only used it a handful of times. It is truly nasty stuff and I wouldn’t even consider using it when I started my own business, as tough a finish as it is. I’m sorry to hear about your husbands health issues. Did he not think all this time he needs to be wearing a respirator? I have been on jobs with several guys and we used to take turns jumping in to keep applying it for a minute or two before jumping outside and letting the next guy have a turn. That is how bad it is.

Will polyurethane fumes harm my child?

Q: We finished our floors yesterday and this morning, with two coats of polyurethane. It is dry; however, we are sleeping in the house with my 3 year old and I’m starting to freak out that the fumes will harm her. The room we are in has the old flooring. Will she be ok? Please let me know! Thanks

A: You will have to be the judge of conditions there. Label warnings are related to occupational over exposure to solvents. This means a person who works with such regularly, not a one time exposure. Having said that, it is possible to have a reaction under high concentration exposure. You wouldn’t put a solvent in a bag and then inhale it would you? Just saying. If it is strong enough to burn your eyes you should not be in there.

Similar Q: I just built an indoor gym at my house, but not attached to my house. I used a big time wood basketball floor company for the maple wood floor. They have done high school and college gyms all over the place. They sealed the floor with oil based polyurethane. They put on 4 coats over 4 consecutive days. They said it would be safe after 5 days. But after 5 days, it smelled real strong and I could feel it in my eyes a little when in there. It has now been 3 weeks, and the smell is getting better, but I can still smell it. I have fans running in there 24/7 and it is air conditioned. I contacted the company (Polo Plaz – http://www.poloplaz.com/magnum/ ) that made the sealant, and their website says the cure period is 3 days. I talked to one of their reps and he said that after a week, that the smell is not harmful as the VOCs are gone.

I have been letting my son play ball in there an hour or two a day, but I’m starting to wonder if that is a problem. He says the smell does not bother him. I have been in there also a few times for an hour or so, and I kind of feel like it makes me want to cough, but probably dreaming that up.

My question is: Is breathing this smell dangerous or harmful in any way?

A: Interesting question. I have been using Poloplaz Primero for a number of years. Excellent product. They have a good team of chemists also. When I arrive at a job site I can generally tell even before I look at the floors if they are dry for another coat. If it smells strong and my eyes burn it probably isn’t ready. This product dries very well. If each coat was not dry, the following application would have wrinkled the film.

If your son was being irritated by solvents he probably would be exhibiting the symptoms: watering eyes, coughing. And you often can taste the finish when you exhale. It may actually be that you have over the years been exposed to a lot of toxins and you are on over load. You may want to check into that. Hyper sensitivity can indicate this is the case.

Follow-up Q: Thanks for getting back with me. The film is not wrinkled. Floor looks amazing. So sounds like you are saying that in your view, his exposure 7 days after the last coat without him complaining of any symptoms was likely harmless even though there was an obvious smell?

A: Yes that would be my view. That there is any smell after that time to me is odd. I don’t believe what you are smelling is solvent which has already long left the film and dissipated. I’m a little more concerned by gases I can’t smell.

Is flaking finish dangerous to one’s health?

Q: I live in a poorly maintained rental apartment and the wood floors have been chipping here and there for quite some time (a few years). I stupidly wasn’t worried early on but recently have been finding tiny flakes of finish (I have no idea what was used…) everywhere. I’m becoming increasingly concerned that I could be breathing this stuff in or otherwise ingesting it, and I’m worried about the possible health effects. I’m not finding much information about how dangerous this situation is. Any idea how harmful this is, or where I can find more info? I’m trying to move as soon as I can but wondering how urgent it is. Thanks very much.

A: I don’t believe you are at any risk whatsoever. The flaking polyurethane isn’t off gassing or your eyes would be watering. In other words, it is not active. And these flakes are not floating. Clearly a half hearted, cost cutting method was used to try and apply a new coat of finish to improve the look of the floor and it was not prepared correctly so adhesion of the finish was not achieved.

Moisture cure urethane safe during pregnancy?

Q: Is it safe to use or to be in a building where Moisture Cure Urethane hardwood floor finish is used during pregnancy?

A: I’ve never used moisture cure but I have used acid cure (aka “Swedish finish”) many times and hear it is comparable. I would definitely not recommend it. The smell, gasping and burning eyes would likely drive you out within minutes anyway.

Follow-up Q: Looking at the MSDS it says Moisture Cure Urethane MCU contains Xylene, Ethyl Benzene, BETX Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) Poly cyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, Acetates, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Would it help you to get a rather clear answer?

A: That about answers your question! But, I love the smell of benzene in the morning.

Note from Webmaster: Moms and Dads-to-be, if you land on this page wondering about “regular” finish while pregnant, here’s a Q&A on that.

Hardwood Floor Refinishing While Pregnant, it can be a smelly situation

Q: Hi, I am 6 months pregnant. We just moved into an apartment, the floors of which were varnished two days prior to our move. It has been a week now but the smell is pretty strong. I spoke to my landlord who assured me that it is absolutely safe for me. I am not convinced though. Can you please let me know how much time should pass after the floors are varnished for the place to be habitable? Is hardwood floor refinishing while pregnant safe? Thank you so much in advance!

A: All finishes, whether water borne or solvent (oil) based dry by solvent evaporation from the film. I don’t know which brand of finish was applied but as a good general rule, the solvent certainly has left the film of finish within 24 hours. In other words, the coating is not ‘off-gassing’ any solvents.

Occasionally, usually due to environmental factors, a coat of finish may be slow to dry. I can almost always tell as soon as I walk in a house whether the finish is dry enough to apply another coating or not. If there is truly a strong smell it means the film is still releasing the solvent. To apply another coat then would cause wrinkling of the surface of the finish.

I would almost be willing to bet that if I walked into that apartment I would smell nothing offensive. In the chance the solvent smell is clinging to the walls or hiding in a closet, just opening the windows for a couple
of hours should take care of it all. There are also odor eaters you can purchase inexpensively to absorb all odors in the area.

If this is a typical solvent based finish which has had 3 days to dry before you moved in (usually dries overnight for re-coating), I don’t believe you or your baby are face any health risk. I’ve been in environments where the finish was not dry and still releasing solvent. It can be very unpleasant with burning eyes. I’ve yet to walk into a job site several days after applying the final coat where I detected anything even remotely resembling that.

Here is an interesting article you might like to read that directly relates to hardwood floor refinishing while pregnant, among other smelly things: The Pregnant Nose Knows: Dealing with Your Super Sense of Smell. I hope this helps!

Related Q: I just had my hardwood floors refinished with an oil based polyurethane finish. We had the floors done while on vacation to avoid the fumes. The floors were finished on a Wednesday and we returned to the house 6 days later on a Tuesday. The house still smells like fumes. I am 3 months pregnant and am very concerned about exposure to fumes. Since we returned, I have been staying with friends to avoid fumes. It has now been 8 days since the floors were finished and it still smells even with proper ventilation. How long will it take for fumes to go away? And if there are fumes, does that mean there is still off-gassing? Or can there be fumes without dangerous off-gassing? I am trying to figure out when it’s safe to sleep there. Thanks for your help.

A: Of course I don’t know what finish was used. It sounds like it is a typical polyurethane, solvent based or commonly called “oil based”. Generally these finishes use mineral spirits as a main solvent. Sometimes a small amount of kerosene is also in the mix. All finishes dry by the evaporation of some type of solvent. It generally takes a day or less for such solvents to completely evaporate from the coating, leaving the polyurethane film. If this were not so, a second or third coat of finish could not be successfully applied. The finish would wrinkle the previous coat. These products do not continue to off gas after this. Swedish finishes, also called “acid cure” I believe are different. They contain or did contain (I haven’t used them for a long time: very nasty) formaldehyde which will continue to off gas. It may very well be that you have more items (construction materials and furniture) in your home which use such adhesives and off gas a tiny amount almost forever. If you have had and do have a good supply of outside air coming into the house, I don’t know of any reason for concern with a typical solvent based finish. I’m much more concerned with off gassing that has no smell. I can usually tell the next morning after coating a floor, as soon as I open the door whether it is dry or not. Are there heavy fumes? By heavy fumes I’m talking burning eyes, etc. I had one complaint like this in 40 years. The home owner was also pregnant. The time frame was about the same as yours. I went to the house and found exactly what I expected. Absolutely nothing. I couldn’t smell anything related to the finish or the solvents. And there were no tell tale signs of such as I mentioned. I had another such complaint years ago. Same time frame. The finish still smelled terrible. I went to his house. It wasn’t the finish. It was the new carpet he had installed up the stairway.

Having said all that I will take a short step to the side and say I share your concerns. We need to start thinking very seriously about the “food” we eat, the water we drink and the air we breath. I won’t even go into what I’ve found out. You will have to find out for yourself because quite frankly if I told you, you might revert into denial. I will say that there are things I am far more concerned about than a slight exposure to mineral spirits. And in your case it must be very slight because the solvent left the coating days ago.

Follow-up: I can’t thank you enough for this information. It definitely sets my mind at ease. I share your concerns about food, air and water. The more I learn, the more terrifying it is! Thank you again so much. Take care.

Related Q: When is it safe for a baby to return to a home in which many rooms of hardwood floors were refinished using a water borne finish?

A: I wouldn’t have any issues taking my own child into a home with floors finished with a water borne finish several hours after it is dry enough to walk on. I would ventilate the area for an hour first. If the finish is two part using a cross linker containing for example iso-cyanate I think I’d wait over night and ventilate well before spending time in the room. Iso is nasty and can have a chronic effect on those who may be sensitive.

Similar Q: How much exposure is considered toxic and potentially harmful for pregnant women? I’m only about 6.5 weeks along, but my husband has had a continuous project gong on in our basement. He is staining 4 stair treads with old oil masters varnish. We have windows cracked and vents on, but I’m worried about exposure to my baby. I’m not down there while he is staining, but I’m usually in the house on the main or upper level. Like I aid it’s a continuing project so he’s put multiple coats on over multiple days. Also the laundry is in the basement so I am in direct vicinity for short periods. Thanks for your reply!

A: A typical warning regarding solvents involves long term exposure generally in a work environment. Your exposure would likely be considered light and sporadic. If you can taste it or it burns your eyes you absolutely know you should not be near there. Just walking into an area for a few minutes where you may happen to smell an odour wouldn’t seem to me to be dangerous. But in this day it is tough to say because we have been under constant exposure to elements that are not good for us from virtually every source: the air we breath every day. The foods we eat and the water we drink. Always stay on the side of caution.

What is the appropriate amount of time for us to not be in the home (and our cats) because of toxic fumes (from swedish finish)?

Q: We are about to have a hardwood (oak) floor laid, and also (at the same time) another room resurfaced and refinished. Both will use ‘swedish finish’. What is the appropriate amount of time for us to not be in the home (and our cats) because of toxic swedish finish fumes? We would like your opinion.

A: Swedish Finishes like others including solvent based and water borne generally off gas in the first 24 hours. I would not be in the house while an acid cure is drying. This is nasty stuff. Tough finish, but nasty. I have a lot of opinion about finishes. The hammer is falling on finishes that contain mineral spirits as the main solvent. To me, this is the less dangerous to a home owner. Water borne sounds very safe but contains some solvents that are really dangerous and can lead to nasty consequences for those who are sensitive, though these finishes don’t smell bad. You don’t want to be in the house when Swedish finishes are drying. After they are dry, ventilation is the key.

Follow-up Q: So, would you say, 2 nights?

A: Each coat would dry overnight. Next day you should be able to go in and open the windows. I would stay out for a full 24 hours if applying acid cure.

How to remove some old tile

Q: I am trying to figure out how to remove some old tile that has plywood underneath. My house was built in the 1900’s and I guess later the owners wanted to update the kitchen with that awful red, tile looking brick. We discovered in a corner that there is the mortar or whatever is under the tile, and then a thick layer of plywood. What would be the easiest and safest way of removing old tile floor without damaging the hardwood floor?

A: These tiles likely contain asbestos. I think I would either cover over it or hire a firm that specializes in asbestos removal.

Headaches, earaches and difficulty sleeping after Swedish finish was applied

Q: Our landlord has applied L***** Swedish floor finish upstairs (we live in the basement). We have had headaches, earaches and difficulty sleeping last week when we came home after 24 hours (when they said it was safe). The smell and headaches continued for 5 days after the first coat. This week they put on the second coat of toxic Swedish finish, and we are staying elsewhere for the first 3 days at great inconvenience. My question is: how toxic is this stuff and how long should we stay away? I would also appreciate studies about this product regarding safety.

A: Swedish finish? Sounds so exotic or European. It is also known as acid cured! I haven’t used an acid cure finish for years. They are tough coatings, but they are also very nasty to apply. They emit Formaldehyde and other solvents while drying. All the windows should be opened to thoroughly ventilate the house. Use a fan if needed to move the contaminated air out and draw fresh air in. I don’t use these finishes because of safety concerns, and would recommend nobody stay in the house until the smell has dissipated. I don’t have any studies on L***** coatings but I have attached the material safety data sheet. There is a phone number on it which you might want to call. Even the “flash point” is very low at 40F. That is not safe. A spark from a thermostat during application could have caused an explosion. If your landlord did this coating himself, I would advise him to leave this work to professionals.

Follow-up Question: Thank you so much for your reply and the attachment. The contractor is saying there isn’t any danger. The smell hung around for 5 days very intensely after the first treatment on 1/15. The 2nd treatment was 1/22. This time we have stayed away. Should we wait to go back until all the smell is gone? It never went away entirely after the 1/15 treatment. I’m just trying to figure out what/when it is safe.

A: I would think you will want to wait until the smell is gone, otherwise it will still be burning your eyes, nose and throat. I would be very interested to know what would happen if somebody entered the house with an instrument that could measure what was in the air. Then you would know for sure. I’ve worked with this type of finish so I know you don’t want to be in there. It is nasty. I did hear an unverified story back in the 1980’s that an acid cure finish was applied on the main floor of a house. 2 dogs were in the basement. They both died!

When is it safe to be around the fumes from a newly varnished floor?

Q: When is it safe to be around the fumes from hardwood floor refinishing / varnish?

A: A chemist tells me that generally for both solvent and water borne finishes, the solvents used are dissipated in 24 hours. Solvent based coatings can be dry enough to walk on in 8-10 hours and water borne in 1-2. Drying and hardness curing are not the same thing however. Both coatings will continue to get harder or cure, and depending which finish is used can take from 24 hours to 4 weeks.

Is it OK to burn finished flooring in a fire pit outdoors?

Q: I am removing old hardwood flooring which is stained and urethaned. Is it OK to burn the finished flooring in a fire pit outdoors?

A: I think I would be cautious with burning wood flooring. You and I do not know if, for example, that coating contains lead or not. It is my understanding that lead was still used in some varnish up to the mid 1970’s. You might also consider local regulations.

Similar Q: I have gotten some wood from an old gym floor, most of which was just cut out and torn up and made useless, except perhaps as firewood. Can this wood, which has several coats of varnish and some paint, be safely burned in my wood burner?

A: I wouldn’t recommend doing that. You don’t know what chemicals may be released when burning. What if the coatings have lead in it?

Floors emit fumes burning nose, eyes, and throat

Q: We installed P**** flooring in our kitchen during the summer (air conditioning weather) and had no problem with fumes. When it came time to turn the heat on, the floor began to emit fumes burning nose, eyes, and throat; causing headache and dizziness for me. I must keep 2 windows open at all times. How long will these hardwood floor fumes last and is it possible to do anything to stop this odour?

A: I’m having trouble making sense of this. The adhesive, if any was used, would be long dry by now. I am not that familiar with P****, but it might be that the core itself is off-gassing, much like bamboo floors, with their multiple strips are often glued with a formaldehyde adhesive and will off-gas. Some persons may never notice this, but you may have a sensitivity to it. I think I would contact the manufacturer and the person who installed the floor.

Tungsten in a floor coating?

Q: I do woodworking. I want to know the best way to remove a hardwood floor coating that has tungsten in it. Some people I have talked to said they use a planner. Is this a good idea or is there a better way?

A: Tungsten in a floor coating? Never heard of such a thing. How do you know, or why do you say this is in the finish, and who makes such a product?

Follow-up Q: My sister has a friend that sells hardwood flooring and she told me that. I didn’t want to breath that stuff and I didn’t want to ruin my planner blades. If I have been misinformed, this is good thing. I would still be interested to know what is the best way to remove the coating? If it is not safe to do then I’ll just forget it.

A: Honestly, I have been around this work a long time, and I’ve never heard of tungsten in coatings. Ceramic and aluminum oxide are the norm in pre finished, and now some are using “nano” technology with their coatings to increase scratch resistance. I don’t think you want to be breathing this dust. Aluminum oxide is tough to sand off. The general recommendation is to skim it with 80 or 60 grit, then go to 40 and work your way to 100. If you had a thickness planer, that might be worth a go. Wear a good mask.

Webmaster’s note: Maybe she meant “tung oil”?

Cork binder

Q: I’m refinishing my son’s room and am wondering about cork. With multiple allergies, I’m concerned about the binder (is it a gluten based binder?) and the finish.

A: I would contact the manufacturer of the product you intend to use. If I may recommend a company, it would be Torly’s or Uniclic.

Babies/Toddlers and peeling finish

Q: The finish on my floors is peeling. They were done before we bought the house so I don’t know what kind of finish is on them. They’re shiny with a yellow tint. Is this a health hazard for my son? I try to keep him from putting things in his mouth, that have touched the floor, but I’m not always successful.

A: I don’t think it matters what finish is peeling off your floors. It is best that your son not eat it. I would suggest going away for a week or 2 and getting the floors re finished so they don’t peel.

Tar off-gassing

Q: I own a 1954 home in Houston with wood floors. I was told that the slabs on homes in Houston were covered with tar in areas over which wooden floors were to be laid, with the tar acting as a moisture barrier and anchor for the runner / supports. The person who told me was adamant that it was common and done on most, if not all, homes here in that time. My research found references to a solid layer of tar only on conjunction with block or parquet floors.

Do you have any idea how prevalent that practice of coating all slab areas under wood floors with a layer of tar was in Houston in the early 50s, as opposed to tar paper or just a strip under the runners?

I imagine after 53 years that the off-gassing would be negligible, but I still would like to know.

A: This tar was also used for parquet block here in Toronto, but as to the situation in Houston in the early 1950’s, I wouldn’t know….

(If someone out there can provide an answer, please contact us! We can post your answer, with your name and a link to your site if you can provide information.)

No toxic off gassing?

Q: I am searching for a manufacturer that produces wood floors with no formaldehyde, Low VOC, non-toxic preservatives, using coats like oxide/polyurethane. In summary, a natural, non-toxic, ecological/green product. I found teragreen.com, but they only sell bamboo. If it would be great if you could send me a list of brand names.

A: Such a question came up with one of my customers and I got a favourable response from this company both in responsible forestry for their products and in there being no toxic off gassing from their finishes: miragefloors.ca

Related Q: I had my oak floors sanded, and a coat of OIL based polyurethane. It is off gassing bad stuff? How can I stop the off gassing? The floor was done in Jan 2010.

A: Off-gassing is the process of releasing the solvent in the coating as it dries. This process takes, generally 24 hours. I think the source of your concern must be from another source. If solvents were being released from your floor now, months later the finish would likely be soft and possibly sticky.

Smelly wood?

Q: I’m perplexed by the smells inhabiting my house these days. It almost smells like something is “hot” in my house. My electrician assured me that all was well. So, my question is: could my hardwood floors give off a woody/hot smell given the high heat and humidity?

A: In North America, the average home has a lot of wood in the house. Not just the hardwood floors. You might try running a dehumidifier if you have high humidity.

Fumes: Pergo vs Prefinished hardwood

Q: I am removing carpet due to asthma. What has worse fumes, Pergo or prefinished hardwood?

A: Boa-Franc, who make their Mirage floor line have assured me there is no off gassing in any of their products, either solid wood or engineered. You must understand that Prego or any other laminate in not a life time investment. It has limited shelf life. the Mirage floors are really quite exceptional, especially the engineered.