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Formaldehyde and Wood

Formaldehyde is a chemical used widely by industry to manufacture building materials and numerous office and household products. It is also a by-product of combustion and certain decay and other natural processes. See HBN/GHSI fact sheet Formaldehyde Found in Building Materials, which provides an overview of concerns with formaldehyde, particularly as it is used as a binder in casework and insulation.

Health Impacts
It has been classified as a known carcinogen by the State of California (Prop 65) and the World Health Organization (International Agency for Research on Cancer). It also has a range of other heatlh effects including being a bronchial irritant and asthma trigger and is connected to multiple chemical sensitivity.

Regulatory Efforts to Reduce Exposure
Europe and Japan have established strong standards to reduce, or in Japan's case, virtually eliminate the use of formaldehyde and its emission into buildings from some of the building materials that emit the most into our buildings.

The California Air Resources Board established new regulations in April 2007 to regulate formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, including particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), and interior plywood. The two step process set 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 them with stricter limits in 2010 (and 2012 for some products). these standards will not eliminate the addition of formaldehyde during product manufacture, but will make formaldehyde free alternatives much more competitive.

HBN thanks all of those who particiapted in our effort to help pass these precedent setting California regulations. that help get us back in a leadership position on improving the health of our materials and shold help stop the dumping of toxic materials on the U.S.

Sources of Formaldehyde in Buildings
Composite wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are likely the most significant source in the home according to the EPA. Wood products made for indoor use include: particleboard (used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture); hardwood plywood paneling (used for decorative wall covering and used in cabinets and furniture); and medium density fiberboard (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops). Medium density fiberboards generally contain the most resin of all wood products and therefore are the biggest emitters.

Other sources of formaldehyde in the home also can include smoking, clothes, upholstery and draperies (it is used for fabric treatments such as permanent press), glues, paints and other coatings, fiberglass insulation, other household products, and the use of un-vented, fuel-burning appliances, like gas stoves or kerosene space heaters. (source EPA website on Sources of Indoor Air Pollution - Formaldehyde)

Alternatives to Urea-Formaldehyde
Other composite wood products, such as softwood plywood and flake or oriented strandboard (OS), are produced for exterior construction use and contain the dark, or red/black-colored phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resin. As the name implies, formaldehyde is present in this type of resin also, but composite woods that contain PF resin generally emit formaldehyde at considerably lower rates than those containing UF resin.

The most widely used completely formaldehyde-free alternative resins are MDI (methylene diphenyl isocyanate) and PVA (polyvinyl acetate). Despite its name, PVA is not closely related to PVC. Without chlorine in its molecule it avoids many of the worst problems that PVC has in its lifecycle (see HBN fact sheet Sorting Out the Vinyls).

Nonetheless, while better for the user with lower emissions, both of these resins, like formaldehyde, are derived from fossil fuels and hence still have toxic chemical problems associated with their manufacture. For an analysis of the current resin binder alternatives used in lieu of formaldehyde for MDF, particleboard, and wheatboard, see Alternative Resin Binders for Particleboard, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), and Wheatboard. HBN encourages manufacturers to continue to explore seek safer green chemistry alternatives. Most promising alternative is the soy based adhesive Columbia Forest Products has developed for plywood called PureBond - a non toxic, renewable, and cost neutral alternative.

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