That's LEEDership: California Targets Zero Formaldehyde

Tom Lent - June 14, 2006

Since the release of LEED® 2.0, the US Green Building Council's LEED [1] rating system has offered an indoor environmental quality credit (EQc4.4) for the use of building materials with no added urea-formaldehyde. This has sent a clear signal to the building materials market, which has responded with an increasing array of cost competitive products, from fiberglass insulation to composite wood materials.

The increasing availability of building materials free of added urea-formaldehyde has emboldened the California Air Resources Board (CARB) [2] to propose regulation on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products and bring them as close to zero as is technically possible by 2010. This is an important and precedent setting environmental health and social justice issue as formaldehyde laden composite products are used widely in low-income housing and schools. But all of us are exposed to these materials everyday in our homes, schools, offices and other buildings.

There is no known safe level of formaldehyde exposure. As much as 400 tons of formaldehyde is emitted by building materials each year in California [3], specifically from composite wood products, leading to hazardous formaldehyde concentrations in the air of homes, schools and offices. The World Health Organization and California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have both identified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. California has added it to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. [4] Formaldehyde is suspected of being an asthma trigger as well as contributing to building related illnesses and multiple chemical sensitivity.

The California proposal is a two step process to achieve virtual elimination of formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, including particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), and interior plywood -- the materials used to sheathe walls and make cabinets and engineered flooring. California would institute a modest limit on emissions for products manufactured after July 1, 2008 and much stricter limits in 2010 (and 2012 for some products) that will virtually eliminate the addition of formaldehyde during product manufacturing.

California's proposed goals are attainable. European standards are already at the level proposed by California for 2008. These levels can be met with current technology by most US manufacturers now. The proposed 2010 standards are similar to standards already in force in Japan. [5] Cost-effective technologies using no added urea formaldehyde are appearing on the US market already that can meet these standards. [6] Worldwide manufacturers, most notably the Chinese, are currently meeting these standards for exports to Europe and Japan. In the meantime, with no regulations to constrain them, those same Chinese manufacturers are selling cheap inferior formaldehyde-laden products in the US.

In what is now a familiar play for readers of the HBN News, trade associations -- including the Formaldehyde Council and the California Wood Industry Council -- are using junk science and intimidation tactics to stop California's effort to establish standards in line with the rest of the world. But LEED's clear, high standard that excludes urea-formaldehyde from the definition of green building materials has helped sharpen and define the debate. Now leading manufacturers that have already cleaned up their production are working with green building professionals and environmental health advocates to encourage California to move forward. That's a winning combination.

If history is any guide, the California formaldehyde elimination standard, and its LEED precursor, will catalyze a national market transformation. With your help, we can achieve a clear victory for the environment, human health, and the power of LEED as a market transformation tool, while rejecting trade association bully tactics.


Footnotes

[1] Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=220

[2] California Air Resources Board, Toxic Air Contaminant Program, http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/background.htm

[3] CalEPA Air Resources Board, Composite Wood Products Fact Sheet, http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/factsheet.htm

[4] US Occupational Safety & Health Administration, Medical surveillance - Formaldehyde http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/formaldehyde/ The World Health Organization and CA Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have both identified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. California has added it to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

[5] Japan - Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, The amended Building Standard law on Sick House Issues, http://www.mlit.go.jp/english/housing_bureau/law/

[6] See for example, Columbia Forest Products Converting to Soy-Based Plywood Adhesive, Treehugger, April 27, 2005, http://www.treehugger.com/files/2005/04/columbia_forest_1.php


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