An example of a formaldehyde-free cabinet.
This one made from bamboo composite, designed by GreenSage for one of our interior design projects.
Get the Gas Out! Formaldehyde Gets the Boot
By Elaine Ireland
Now that most people are aware of the dangers of lead, we can shift from saying 'Get the Lead Out' to 'Get the Gas Out!' VOC kind of gasses that is. Formaldehyde, one of the most pervasive, is a great place to start.
In California, the Air Resources Board (CARB) has adopted regulations this spring to reduce formaldehyde emissions from products sold in California, particularly composite wood products particleboard, hardwood plywood and MDF (medium density fiberboard).
What is formaldehyde?
It is a colorless gas with a pungent odor and a suspected carcinogen. Yet, it is one of the most commonly used chemicals in many manufacturing processes and products, said to exist in about 3,000 different products. It is an all too common indoor air pollutant in virtually every building from your home, to your office, hotel rooms, retail environments, hospitals. Mobile homes, new homes, and newly remodeled homes are particularly nortorious for harboring formaldehyde. Older homes usually have less formaldehyde in the air because, if they're old enough when solid wood was more plentiful, they may not contain pressed wood products or the formaldehyde has been released into the air over time leaving less to still outgas.
The source of the formaldehyde is most often items made from pressed composite wood products again the particleboard, plywood and MDF from which most furniture, cabinets, countertops, moldings and shelving is made. However, it is also used in flooring products, insulation, bonding and laminating agents, adhesives, paints and coatings, wallpaper, paper and textile products (such as linens and draperies).
Formaldehyde can also be emitted as a by-product of burning wood, gas appliance use, and cigarette and cigar smoking. It is used in some of our every day items such deodorants, disinfectants, fingernail polish and hardeners. Its used in fabrics, whether for decorating or for wearing to fix dyes and to resist wrinkles. Read more about Formaldehyde in our online Sage Learning Center.
The danger of formaldehyde?
It has been known to cause a myriad of problems, including short-term ones such as nose, throat and respiratory irritation, and long-term ones, such as cancer. It has also been said to cause indeterminant-term ones, especially cognitive symptoms such as dizziness, disorientation, confusion and memory loss. How it affects you and your family depends upon the condition of your health and immune system, the amount you are exposed to and the length of time you are exposed.
Formaldehyde and other Volatile Organic Compound gasses can "outgas" over time. It diminishes over that time, but can still linger 20+ years! Additionally, it gets absorbed into soft goods, such as your carpeting and the fabrics on your furniture and windows where it can continue to offgas in a viscious cycle kind of way. Once its in your environment, its difficult to get it out. Its best not to bring it in.
The new regulation requires all composite wood products (hardwood plywood, particleboard and MDF) sold in California to meet strict formaldehyde limits. The other products mentioned above are not affected by this ruling. The two step regulatory process sets limits on emissions for products manufactured after January 1, 2009 that will be roughly equivalent to the majority of the European and Japanese standards and will exceed their standards with stricter limits in 2010 (and 2012 for some products). These new standards will not completely eliminate the addition of formaldehyde during product manufacture, but will make formaldehyde-free alternatives much more competitive.
This will bring California in line with Europe and Japan in Phase 1," said CARB Chairman, Dr. Robert Sawyer, "and will make us the world leader when we implement Phase 2 in 2012. This measure will substantially reduce public exposure to formaldehyde, related asthma attacks and the risk of getting cancer."
All wood has some naturally occurring formaldehyde. But more formaldehyde is added to composite wood in the form of certain resins, which are used to bind wood particles together. New methods are available and others are quickly being developed that reduce and even eliminate the need for formaldehyde. When CARB's standards are in full effect in 2012, annually there will be 500 fewer tons of formaldehyde in California's air.
Similar products sold outside of California are exempt. To ensure compliance, foreign and domestic manufacturers must certify their products by a "third party" lab approved by CARB and clearly label the items as meeting California's emission requirements. Distributors, contractors, panel manufacturers, and importers will be held responsible for assuring their products comply.
In the meantime, what you can do be wise and protect your health
First, eliminate the source.
Select non-composite wood materials for your cabinets, shelves, countertops and furniture, such as solid wood, metal, or glass. Or when purchasing composite wood, insist they be formaldehyde-free composite materials.
If you have old cabinets and shelves, keep them. If needed, refinish them with a non-toxic finish and spruce them up with new hardware.
Buy reclaimed cabinets and refinish them. Just beware of any lead paint that may exist on the old cabinets, especially if you are sanding them.
If you're really intent on purchasing composite wood items, seal them. There are a few low-VOC and zero-VOC polyurethanes on the market to choose from.