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.

5 thoughts on “Hardwood Floor Refinishing While Pregnant, it can be a smelly situation”

  1. My boyfriend coated some stair parts with an oil based polyurethane . he coded them downstairs in our house with the window open in the fan blowing . However the smell in the house is lingering , especially as I’m cooking dinner. I’m 6 1/2 months pregnant and I’m wondering if this is safe to be around ? Again the parts were coated down stairs with open window

  2. I’m 6 1/2 months pregnant and my boyfriend has polyurethanes some stair treads downstairs in our house ( oil based poly) the smell is lingering especially while I’m cooking. He does have the down stairs window open with a fan. Is this safe for me to be around upstairs away from where the parts were coated? I ask because I’ve had a small headache all day and I’m not sure if it’s from the faint odor of the poly

  3. All finishes have some type of solvent as an ingredient which causes the coating to dry. For ‘oil based’ finishes mineral spirits is typically the solvent used, and sometimes a bit of kerosene also. The solvent evaporates from the coating and the finish dries. Any warnings I’ve ever read for such finishes is against ‘long term, occupational over exposure’. That is a warning especially applicable to persons such as myself who are exposed to these solvents often and in large amounts.

    Sometimes environmental conditions can increase the intensity of the solvent in the air. For example, in small rooms or spaces where there is poor air circulation or when it is warm and dry and the solvents evaporate rapidly and are not vented by the influx of fresh air. Anyone exposed to that situation can expect the typical burning eyes and irritated mucous membranes. In your case this is a one time, incidental exposure. I know of no reason you would suffer any lasting illness from this. We aren’t talking cyanide here.

    I have heard, rarely, of persons who seem affected by almost everything, even with the smallest of exposure. How to explain it? One day I was listening to a doctor talk about his own health issues who touched on this. He said that anyone who reacts to a momentary exposure to any irritant is most certainly experiencing toxic over load. In other words, there are other things in their life which the body keeps fighting to clear out and it can’t handle any more toxins. I’m not saying that is your case. I’ve been exposed countless times to high levels of solvents. It is never pleasant and I work as fast as I can to get out to fresh air. And that really is the cure from being exposed. Fresh air. Not to worry. Make sure you vent the closet. Use a fan to blow air in there if you have to. Open windows while doing so.

  4. Hi, I come to you with something that has been on my mind a lot lately. A few days ago we had a small closet floor refinished with an oil based finish. The kind you would buy at ace hardware for $14. I didn’t really think about how bad it would be to get the cheap stuff, but after they finished it that day, they said we could sleep in that room. Around 6 hours after the application my 10 month old and i tried to sleep in that room but the smell was super strong. I didn’t think to open the windows or put on the fan till around 5 hours later but we ended up sleeping elsewhere because I was developing a horrible headache and had started getting drainage and a runny nose. My son seemed fine but for 2 days I was forgetting everything, I couldn’t pay attention for the life of me and the headache continued. My son seems absolutely fine but did develop a cold a few days later. Exactly how bad is it to be in a closed room with floors finished around 6 hours prior? I am super nervous of the damage my ignorance could have caused our health.

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