Emissions from consumer products

In buildings, air pollutants can be released from, for example, building products or furniture, and cause nuisances. For this reason, legal requirements or quality labels have long been in place in these areas in order to limit emissions or to promote low-emission products.

However, certain chemicals in everyday products can also pollute indoor air.

Mouse pad, paper clips on the table
© Fraunhofer WKI | H. Pichlmeier

There are only a few materials that truly do not release any volatile organic compounds. Glass, metal and some mineral materials are examples of emission-free materials. It is therefore not surprising that many consumer products are relevant sources of emissions. In most cases, emissions decrease over time, so the longer the product is used, the lower the emissions will be.

For some product types, the release of VOCs is desirable, such as room fragrance products, sprays and scented candles or hygiene products containing fragrances. For some cleaning agents, the release of propellant gases or fragrances is a typical side effect of use.

However, there are a surprising number of products where emissions (e.g. odors) are noticeable even though substances are neither expected nor desired to be emitted. These include many plastic products, especially those with a foam structure: during their production, propellant gases and additives are sometimes used, which later evaporate from the object. Ideally, this happens before the product goes on sale - however, fast, tight packaging can mean that these residual substances only evaporate from the item during use.

In the area of children's toys, there are more comprehensive legal requirements, so that the paints, plastic parts and textiles used are less likely to cause unwanted emissions.

Some hobby products (e.g. adhesives, varnishes, glazes, modeling compounds) contain highly volatile solvents to achieve the desired quick drying/hardening. These solvents can evaporate during use, so it is important to follow the manufacturer's instructions (necessary ventilation/no indoor processing).

Residual chemicals can remain in almost all consumer products, depending on the production conditions. Even with natural products such as leather, wood or wool/cotton, residual chemicals may remain in the product due to the manufacturing process. Sometimes this can be detected by a noticeable odor of the product even before purchase. However, as not all industrial chemicals can be detected by the nose, emissions cannot be ruled out even with odorless articles.

As for building products and furniture, emissions from consumer products can be measured using test chambers.

Current studies also confirm that VOC emissions from consumer products are definitely relevant: Mc Donald et al. were able to determine, for example, that the amount of VOCs released into outdoor air from consumer products in large cities is roughly the same as the amount released from road traffic.


McDonald BC et al., Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions. Science  16 Feb 2018:Vol. 359, Issue 6377, pp. 760-764, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0524