My Kitchen Countertops and the VOCs

A kitchen with a brown floor, cherry wood cabinets and white countertops with a German Shorthaired Pointer puppy standing at his food dish on the right side of the island.

After we painted over our linolium floor the indoor air inside my house, in comparison, felt fresher. I slacked off on airing it out. I had been in the habit of opening windows, creating a current that brought in a lot of fresh air, fanning out the corners of the rooms and behind the furnture to stir it all up and make the stale, VOC filled air go outside. I was hopeful that I had found all of the large sources. But after a few days of only opening a window here and there the VOCs started to build up once again. There was something left and with the floor painted over I was able to get a better perspective. I could feel it coming from the countertops. I got brave and I didn’t fight it. I wanted to document the symptoms again. I started cleaning up my kitchen putting the dishes away and taking pictures for this page without forcing fresh air in.

A white countertop with cherry wood cabinets with one door open showing mason jars and a wooden rolling pin inside

Sharp nerve pain shot down from between my fingers as I put my mason jars away. My elbows ached and muscles tightened. My chest was pounding and felt tight. Breathing felt like a chore with a burn sensation. My face, feet and fingers felt numb. My entire body hurt and felt swollen and drained. My joints ached from head to toe. My ears started to ring and I had a heavy metal taste in my mouth.

The joints in my hands hurt as I carried my laundry to the laundry room, which is the room next to the kitchen.

A blonde girl with blue eyes wearing a white shirt with rosey pink cheeks standing in a bathroom

My eyes were red, felt dried out with a burn sensation and were blurrier than normal. My cheeks were red and flushed and my skin felt dry and stung. My top teeth felt loose. My muscles ached. My body was tired and my chest tight. My lips felt like they were getting chapped. The corners of my nostrils felt raw as my nose ran. The calfs on my legs cramped and twitched when I walked. My chest tightened and I coughed as I climbed the stairs. I felt fatigued, dizzy and disoriented.

I was finished torturing myself. I took a shower and put on fresh clothes and headed off to my bedroom on the second floor, which has a fan blowing in fresh air all day long, all year round. As I laid in bed my body still ached. Stretching made me feel somewhat better, but as I moved around trying to get comfortable I got a bad cramp in my left side. My neck was stiff. My arms shook and elbows ached like they were unsteady. My hand felt crampy and fingers ached as I touched my phone taking notes about what was happening and when. I believe I am feeling the volatile organic compound (VOC) benzene and phthalates, a semi-volatile organic compound (SVOC).

The next day I got a cold sore on my lip.

I bought a countertop stone and stainless steel sealer that is said to be non-toxic, eco-friendly and odorless. It states it is a 100% active formula with no solvents, VOCs, BPAs, or petroleum distillates with no drying or curing time required. I am not sure what the ingredients are, but I am going to try it on part of my countertop and see if things get worse, better or stay the same.

A shiny white countertop with a bottle of sealer sitting on it

I tried the countertop sealer. I have to admit, it made the counter look pretty. However, VOC wise, it made it worse. It put an oily coat of moisture on top of a counter that emits vapors. Air quality is always worse when it's humid because the moisture in the air pulls the otherwise low-laying vapors up. The VOCs increased substantially and as the night continued, it kept getting worse and worse.

The unfinished underside of a white countertop

It seemed to be just an oil and was not going to improve the air. I needed to get it off so I could try paint. I used some standard cleaners to remove the oils, then applied raw vinegar. When I wiped over the underside of the counter I got a strong face burn. My lungs tightened with a heavy metal taste in my mouth. All of my symptoms were back. I bent down and looked. Why was the underside stronger than the top of the counter? Then I saw it. The underside of my countertops were never sealed off like the top. It was raw material with no seal coat and it was incredibly bad air quality-wise.

The underside of a white marble patterned countertop in the kitchen where you can see the finished coat vs the unfinished tan material.

I’m going to paint the underside to try and seal it off like we did with our linolium floor. I still have some of the no-VOC floor paint sealer and topcoat left. It should be enough to finish all of the counter overhang. I feel like I can’t even come up with a strong enough word to accurately describe just how bad the underside of the countertop makes the air in my kitchen feel. I get fingertip nerve pain immediately when I touch it along with a metal taste in my mouth that is very strong. I feel tingles up my spine just being in the same room. If I don't either leave or force fresh air in all of my other symptoms explained above come back.

A can of no-VOC paint and paint supplies on cardboard with white paper towels all around in a blue kitchen that has a brown floor.

With all of my kitchen windows open, I started painting the "step 1" base coat. I could feel the air get worse as I moved the brush across the raw, unsealed areas.

A kitchen with a brown floor and blue painters tape all around the edges with the dishwasher door open.

I realized that the areas that lack a sealer go deeper than just the overhangs. As I pushed the paint brush in the cracks between the top of the dishwashwer and the bottom of the counter, I could feel the VOCs from 19 years of build-up and oh my gosh was it strong. The kind of strong that creeps me out.

A blue kitchen with an open dishwasher and blue painters tape all around the bottom of the countertop overhang.

As things settled and more and more of the exposed overhang was painted over the air began to improve with just the base coat applied, even before the paint was dry. In the morning I was able to confirm that the air had greatly improved in comparison. Tonight I will apply the clear step-2 final no-VOC top coat.

A girl with blonde hair wearing a light blue shirt and blue jeans painting the underside of a countertop with a roller

I applied the step-2 sealer. Painting the exposed areas made a very big difference in air quality.

Two dogs, a blue-nose American Bully and a German Shorthair Pointer puppy next to a blonde-haired girl who is painting the underside of a countertop

Mia and Yuki, Don’t step on the paint lid or in the tray!

My plan is to get no-VOC countertops at some point. For now I have to deal with the current situation and hope the nerve damage in my body does not get worse and maybe even heal. My next plan is to close the kitchen doors that lead to the rest of the house, open all of the kitchen windows and exterior door, bring in a leaf blower, put on a mask and low air in the cracks between the countertop and the cabinets below whereever I can. I am going to force those VOCs out the window so the build up can start over.

To be continued...

Sharon Maguire - Updated 2-14-2020

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