Is it safe for my pregnant wife to be around polyurethane fumes?
July 14, 2009 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I want to have 2 bedroom hardwood floors refinished. My wife is about 14 weeks pregnant. Is it safe for her to be in the house with the polyurethane fumes from the floor finish?

I have a raised ranch house. The 2 bedrooms being refinished are on the upper level. We have another bedroom on the lower level on the opposite side of the house where we can sleep.

I know polyurethane and pregnancy do not mix but I figured she can mostly avoid the fumes by staying on the lower level as much as possible. The kitchen is on the upper level so there would be times when she's exposed to the fumes.

Are the fumes very dangerous? As an aside does anyone have experience with water-based finishes for floors?
posted by bingwah to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've redone hardwood floors. That shit is toxic. Get a hotel room for a few days.
posted by ducktape at 10:11 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Even if she wasn't pregnant, humans and animals need to be out of the house. Those fumes are ridiculous.
posted by jerseygirl at 10:14 AM on July 14, 2009

I agree, go stay in a hotel for a few days. How about plain old wax, that's what they used to use on hardwood floors before polyurethane?
posted by mareli at 10:20 AM on July 14, 2009

From a polyurethane data sheet. - Repeated and prolonged exposure to solvents may lead to permanent brain and nervous system damage. Eye watering, headaches,
nausea, dizziness and loss of coordination are signs that solvent levels
are too high. Intentional misuse by deliberately concentrating and inhaling
the contents may be harmful or fatal.

Also, what prep work have you done so far? From same sheet - Removal of old paint by sanding, scraping or other means may generate dust or fumes which contain lead. Exposure to lead dust or fumes may cause adverse health effects, especially in children or pregnant women.
posted by Frasermoo at 10:26 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

14 weeks is still awfully early in a pregnancy. Don't expose her to anything toxic, just for her peace of mind. If anything (God forbid) were to go wrong, you don't want to be regretting something like re-finishing the floors. Use a natural wax for now but be careful because it's more slippery than Verathane when polished.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:29 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Have done this, twice. The first time we didn't leave. It was one room we could seal off. The smell was horrible, even with the room sealed off.

The second time, we had three rooms done and left for a whole week. We came back and it did still smell, but not horribly so.

If it were me, and I were 14 weeks pregnant, I wouldn't stay in the house.
posted by cooker girl at 10:31 AM on July 14, 2009

Yeah, get out. That's some nasty stuff, pregnancy or not.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:40 AM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, so staying in the house with polyurethane fumes is definitely out. Leaving the house for a week isn't really an option so I guess we'll look for an alternative to a polyurethane based finish. We're trying to match the finish in the hallway which I'm sure was done with a polyurethane finish so hopefully we can get close using a different finish.
posted by bingwah at 10:44 AM on July 14, 2009

here's another -

Polyurethanes are made from isocyanates, the chemicals associated with the world's worst chemical accident in India in 1984 (the Bhopal disaster, which involved the accidental release into the atmosphere of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide factory). They cause lung irritation or lung damage and are sensitising chemicals, meaning that after sufficient exposure, one can become highly sensitive in an allergic way, reacting to even very small doses of the chemicals (5, 10). They may released as monomers from both water-based and organic solvent-based polyurethane varnishes. The combination of volatile aromatics and the release of isocyanates makes polyurethanes one of the most hazardous interior-use products on the market. (It is especially important that women in pregnancy avoid the fumes of such products.)em>
posted by Frasermoo at 10:45 AM on July 14, 2009

There is an inverse relationship between toxicity and durability, unfortunately.

nthing all of the above comments.
posted by Danf at 10:48 AM on July 14, 2009

Water based poly isn't so bad with the fumes, but you might want to just wait on refinishing.
posted by electroboy at 10:55 AM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Leaving the house for a week isn't really an option so I guess we'll look for an alternative to a polyurethane based finish.

I'd suggest speaking to an expert your local paint or hardware store, then speaking to her OB before beginning the work. When my wife was pregnant and on bedrest, making it difficult to move to a hotel for a week, I spoke to the folks at our local Benjamin Moore store regarding non-VOC paints and polyurethane alternatives for the nursery.

We decided to wait on the floors, but they suggested either a water based polyurethane or Safecoat Polyureseal BP. They also warned me away from shellac.
posted by zarq at 11:03 AM on July 14, 2009

Safety is of course paramount, but it probably won't matter what you use in terms of her being able to bear it -- her sense of smell is so heightened right now (at least mine always is during pregnancy) that she'll be ultra-sensitive to everything. I used to practically vomit the minute I walked into the grocery store from the smell of the lettuce, which was approximately 50 yards away. Anything stronger would have sent me over the edge.
posted by mdiskin at 11:04 AM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Just use water based poly.
posted by zeoslap at 11:23 AM on July 14, 2009

nthing a water based poly.
posted by Gungho at 11:56 AM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: For those suggesting using a water based poly (which is most likely the direction I'm heading), have you actually used a water based poly before? It'd be nice to hear someone's personal experience using it. Does it hold up pretty good?
posted by bingwah at 12:05 PM on July 14, 2009

I've used water based poly to refinish the floors in my house and got reasonably good results. Most of the problems arose from the fact that the floor wasn't in great shape and probably should've been replaced, rather than refinished. I used Varathane and was happy with the finish.

But really, keep in mind that while the immediate effects of overexposure are well documented by the MSDS, other effects like endocrine disruptions are still pretty fuzzy and potentially have serious consequences for your developing child.
posted by electroboy at 12:42 PM on July 14, 2009

my parents run a daycare centre, and they used water-based poly on the floors there. - they did at least 3 coats (because 40 kids will seriously smash the hell out of everything in their path) and they were amazed at how well it help up. it's good stuff.

and this might be an article of interest to you
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:31 PM on July 14, 2009

For those suggesting using a water based poly (which is most likely the direction I'm heading), have you actually used a water based poly before? It'd be nice to hear someone's personal experience using it. Does it hold up pretty good?

IMHO there isn't a whole lot of difference in durability between the water and 'oil'-based poly's you can get at your large consumer building supply place. you can get some really durable non-water based stuff (think gym floor), but as someone said, durability goes with toxicity. the oil-based stuff you can buy as a consumer has a lower VOC content than your father's polyurethane (thank you EPA) but i think it's probably less durable... what you will notice about durability has more to do with proper application (water and oil-based stuff go on very differently and can be screwed up for different reasons), and whether it is matte gloss.

however, if you really want to match existing finished wood, you really don't have a lot of choice, depending on how it is finished. even a 'clear' oil-based poly will yellow the wood when they dry, water-based poly's will dry to a true clear finish. it is likely that the existing wood is stained as well. this is really kind of hard to do well unless you know exactly how the old stuff was finished.

i can't really comment on health effects, but in my experience, the oil-based stuff is smellier so you notice it more, but i'm not convinced that the water-based stuff is any better. 'water'-based poly still has a witches brew of VOC (volatile organic chemicals) like toluene, but it doesn't smell as much so you think everything's ok. i wish i knew a good resource on medium term out-gassing i.e. what chemicals are you inhaling even when everything smells ok. water-based polyurethane is still polyurethane i.e. 'light' cigarettes still kill you.

bottom-line: the safest choice is to not refinish the floors. if you really must do it, think about using a water-based poly and then really sealing off the room(s) with fans blowing outside.

(also, if the floor already has poly on it don't put wax on it... that's just going to make a mess)

p.p.s. make sure the person putting on the finish actually believes in water-based poly. if you find the cheapest person you may find yourself with a really stinky room and a badly done finish. refinishing floors is not fun, cheap = bad job almost certainly.
posted by geos at 1:34 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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