The trend for the last few years has been for consumers to move towards more natural and non-toxic products: plastics especially are now Undesirable No. 1. However, all sorts of things can off gas: furniture, carpet, mattresses...you know that new car smell everyone always loves? That’s actually from materials in the vehicle off gassing.
So, you may or may not have heard of off gassing. I know that even when the no-plastics movement started, I still hadn’t really heard much about off gassing specifically. Off gassing is defined most simply as: to give off a chemical, especially a harmful one, in the form of a gas. Those smells you smell in a new car or from a piece of furniture are actually the product releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
The first time I ever heard that term used was about archives, not plastics. The Society of American Archivists uses the term outgassing and define this as: the release of material in the form of a vapor as a result of deterioration. So, when items start to deteriorate, they give off a gas. Usually it is pretty obvious which items may be off gassing as they have a smell. The thing that I always think of immediately is blueprints. There’s a flat file of blueprints that I’ve had to go through in search of something, and the whole file just reeks of vinegar! It’s the paper that is starting to break down. Blueprint paper is treated with ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide, so it’s not like regular paper is starting to decompose; it is the compounds on the paper. The prints have given the entire archives area a certain vinegar smell to it. Typically, when you get that vinegar smell, most people will attribute it to cellulose acetate plastic in film. They even call it vinegar syndrome.
There are also concerns when it comes to the furnishings in a repository. I once had someone asking me about some bookcases that had been donated to them and if they would be ok to use. Upon inspection, the bookcases were made of MDF/particleboard. Don’t get me wrong, I know the budgeting constraints on most organizations, and beggars can’t be choosers, so by all means use the free bookcases! But it’s important to note that some materials, (MDF and particleboard are notorious) contain toxic elements like formaldehyde that can be harmful. During graduate school, I worked at a law firm that handled different personal injury cases, and one branch of the firm had taken to looking into a particular big box flooring supplier as their products were allegedly off gassing toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, at insane levels. If you read my previous post, you’ll recall that after I had been asked about building suggestions for a new facility, part of my recommendation was to not use certain varnishes, flooring products, paints, etc. as they can give off toxic vapors. While the main concern is obviously staff and visitors that you don’t want exposed to potential VOCs floating around, you also don’t want your artifacts submitted to random chemicals that may be in the air.
There are different tests that you can do to test the indoor air quality of a facility to see just how bad things are. Home Air Check is one of the first ones that comes up if you do a Google search (this post is not affiliated or sponsored by Home Air Check), and there are others out there as well. If you discover that you are working with less than stellar air quality, you can try an air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. This will work to filter out unseen nastiness that may be floating around. But one of the simplest things you can do is to work to control temperature and humidity. Not only does low temperature and stable humidity lead to prolonged life of archival records, they can also help keep things from off gassing as rapidly.
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