Which impact have volatile organic compounds from wood and wood-based products on humans?


Testing of volatile organic compounds (c) Thünen-Institut
Testing of volatile organic compounds (© Thünen-Institut)

Health risk assessment of indoor exposure to emissions from wood and wood products

Individual case studies on health impairments of residents of timber houses and corresponding press releases suggest a harmful effect of wood emissions. This contributes to insecurity among the population.

Background and Objective

Due to its good material properties, wood and wood-based products are widely used as a construction material and for furniture. However, in particularly in modern airtight buildings, this can lead to an accumulation of emissions from building materials and furnishings, especially in the case of inadequate ventilation. The extent to which these substances can affect human health is the topic of controversial discussion. Toxicological threshold values exist for a series of substances for which precautionary hygienic values for indoor air quality have been derived. Wood products always emit mixtures of different substances. There is little known about the effect of mixtures of these substances on human health (irritations of the skin and the mucous membranes in the eyes and respiratory tract, allergenic as well as immunotoxic potential, but also positive effects such as increased performance). Therefore, the emissions released during the use of wood and wood-based products are to be comprehensively analysed and toxicologically evaluated. Existing guideline values for the indoor air quality can thus be checked and corrected where necessary.

The aim is to provide a more comprehensive picture of possible health effects of wood emissions. In addition, strategies for the optimal use of wood are to be developed and thereby the use of wood in the construction sector will be promoted.

Target Group

The results of the project ensure more safety when utilizing wood and wood-based products for indoor applications. This benefits consumers and players in the construction sector.


The starting point is a literature-based meta-study, carried out by the working groups involved in the project. This study collects and analyses existing data on adverse impacts of wood emissions and identifies existing knowledge gaps. Our focus is the characterization of the emission behaviour of wood and wood-based products. In particular, we are interested in the quantitative and qualitative composition of the emissions of different wood species and wood-based products. In addition, we will discuss the factors influencing the emission performance with the aim to estimate exposure levels indoors.

On the basis of the literature review, cell biological, immunological and allergological experiments will be conducted. Thereby the potential hazard of wood emissions (toxicity of mixtures) and single emission components (lead compounds) will be investigated. Firstly, the focus is on pine wood and the lead substance alpha-pinene. In the course of the project other types of wood (spruce, beech) as well as wood-based materials (OSB) will also be examined regarding their health impacts. Our task is to design suitable exposure scenarios in emission test chambers (according to EN ISO 16000). Furthermore we provide the wood technological expertise to support the project partners with their experiments.

Our Research Questions

  • What are typical emissions of wood and wood-based products in test chambers and under real housing conditions?
  • What exhibits a higher risk potential: individual emission components or the sum of all emissions of a wood product? How do single components interact with each other?
  • Are existing guideline values (e.g., German AgBB evaluating scheme) reasonable?


Involved Thünen-Partners

Involved external Thünen-Partners

  • Institut für Umweltmedizin und Krankenhaushygiene, Universitätsklinik Freiburg
    (Freiburg, Deutschland)
  • Zentrum Allergie & Umwelt, TU München und Helmholtz Zentrum
    (München, Deutschland)
  • Helmholtz Zentrum für Umweltforschung, Department Umweltimmunologie
    (Leipzig, Deutschland)
  • Leibniz-Institut für Arbeitsforschung
    (Dortmund, Deutschland)

Funding Body

  • Federal Ministry of Food und Agriculture (BMEL)
    (national, öffentlich)


5.2016 - 12.2019