Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Formaldehyde : The Toxin You Breathe In Every Single Day & How To Reduce Your Home Exposure

photo credit:  @motherhoodismymuse

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.   Many people, when exposed to even low levels of formaldehyde will start to feel eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and other allergic reactions.  Others will feel nothing, even if they are being exposed. Unfortunately, long term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals.  Generally, children, older adults, and people with asthma and other breathing problems are more likely to experience symptoms.

 Most people know enough to avoid formaldehyde, and yet it is one of the most prevalent pollutants in your home's indoor air.   The reason?   

Composite wood products.

While formaldehyde is  commonly found in cleaning products, carpets , drapery and insulation, it is its prevalence in composite wood products that make it the king of indoor air pollution.

 Kitchen and bathroom cabinets (even high-end ones), children's furniture - even cribs and bed frames-, 'wooden' furniture, some 'wood' toys, shelving units and flooring are all commonly made of composite wood products.  Higher-end options are typically made from plywood, while less expensive options are typically made from MDF or pressboard. 

composite wood is commonly found in sub flooring.
To the left plywood.  To the right OSB/particleboard
Composite wood (also called engineered wood) is a "derivative wood product which is manufactured by binding or fixing the strands, particles, fibres, or veneers or boards of wood, together with adhesives, or other methods of fixation[1] to form composite materials"
The most common types are: 
  • Plywood: an engineered wood product made from three or more thin sheets of wood. These are glued together to form a thicker, flat sheet.  Hardwood plywood, used indoors for cabinetry and paneling, is composed of a core layer surrounded with higher quality woods usually bound with urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue.
  • MDF, which stands for "medium-density fiberboard," looks like real wood
    cut straight from a tree, but is actually recycled pieces of wood pressed together with adhesive under conditions of high temperature and heat.  
  • Particleboard is a relatively inexpensive waste-wood product made by combining and pressing sawdust and resin. (unlike  MDF, a costlier alternative, which is made using small wood fibers instead of wood dust). To make the end product water resistant, fireproof, and/or insect-proof chemicals are used including wax, dyes, wetting agents, and release agents.  Oriented strand board (OSB) is a commonly used particle board.
All three of these usually use formaldehyde containing glues to bind the pieces of wood together.    These glues, generally made of either urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde, can emit large amounts of formaldehyde fumes into your home.

It is the glue in the composite wood products that will expose you to formaldehyde.  There are different types of glues (some with formaldehyde, others without) but the two most common are:
  • urea formaldehyde (UF)  usually used in MDF, which continue to release formaldehyde throughout the life of the wood. 
  • Phenol formaldehyde resin, more often used in plywood, is said to off gas 90 percent less formaldehyde than UF glue, and thus is considered a safer alternative.   

1.   Choose natural wood.  Buy real wood furniture.  Have cabinetry custom made from real wood. Install real wood flooring instead of engineered woods. Make sure you child's wooden toys are made of real solid wood and not composite wood  (also, make sure the wood product is FSC certified for using sustainable wood harvested from responsibly managed forests.)

Bottom line:  whenever it is possible, choose real, solid  wood over composite wood.  However, the reality  is that sometimes, you might have no other choice than to purchase a composite wood product.  Be it because of budget ( real wood products are usually significantly more expensive or sometimes not as readily available as composite wood alternatives) or lack of choices (even high end kitchen cabinets usually contain some parts made of particleboard), you might find yourself having to purchase a composite wood product.   Here are certain questions you should ask before bringing anything home in order to make sure you are bringing home a product that, at least, emits significantly lower levels of this toxic chemical.


1.  Is the product real wood or composite wood ( MDF or particle board)?
2.  If it is a composite wood product: does it meet the California Air Resources Board (CARB 2) standard for low formaldehyde emissions (labelled as California Phase 2 Compliant)?   Currently, California's CARB2 emission standards are the strictest in the world. All items sold in the state of California must meet these tough regulations but items produced and sold outside of California do not necessarily abide by these low emission rules.
3. Alternately is the product:   TSCA Title VI compliant  (starting in December 2017 the US government has started to push for all composite wood products sold in the US to meet the California CARB 2 standards for low formaldehyde emissions.   IT will take some time for all composite wood products outside of California to meet these new requisites but if you find a product that is TSCA Title VI compliant it is a good thing.

If the product is not CARB 2 nor TSCA Title VI compliant I would consider not bringing it home.  If it is meant for a baby's nursery, and you have access to a safer product, I would not bring it home.   If it is an item you simply cannot do without then ask:

1. Does it use a formaldehyde based adhesive or a formaldehyde free glue?  If it is a formaldehyde free glue it probably does meet the California standards and the customer service representative probably didnt know to tell you.  Ask again.
2.  If it does use a formaldehyde based adhesive:  is it urea formaldehyde glue or phenol formaldehyde resin?    Do not buy if it is urea formaldehyde glue, since this means it will continue to release formaldehyde for the life of the product. A product with phenol formaldehyde adhesives can be placed to off gas in a garage or outdoors for a couple of weeks and that will help a lot.

3.  Other seals/labels to  to look for that are good/safer: 
Products labeled “No VOC/Low VOC” 
Greenguard Gold-certified adhesives, sealants and finishes

What to do if you already have composite wood products emitting formaldehyde in your home ?

1.  Open windows every. single. day.   I cannot stress how important this is - not just to reduce formaldehyde levels in your home but to reduce all sorts of chemical buildup inside.  

2.  Control humidity and temperature in your home:  Formaldehyde off gasses more when temperatures are higher and less with lower temperatures.  Similarly, increased humidity increases emissions.   

3.  Allow a product to off gas outside (or in a garage or unused room) until the strongest smell dissipates.  This will not eliminate all formaldehyde being emitted by the product but will help.

4.  Finally, there are products that you can use to seal in the formaldehyde that is off gassed from composite wood products.  These products should only be applied to the exposed edges where raw MDF or particleboard or pressed wood is visible to you (usually in the back of a cabinet for example).



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