Formaldehyde. The word alone recalls memories of the Hurricane Katrina victims housed in FEMA trailers and sickened by the “off-gassing” or vaporization of formaldehyde gas from the plywood and pressboard used in the trailers’ construction.
If you think only trailer park residents are affected by off-gassing, guess again.
Formaldehyde is found in pressed wood (plywood, particle board, and medium-density fiberboard), cosmetics, permanent-press clothing and draperies, glues and adhesives, and some paints and coating products. Furniture and housing construction materials are the biggest source of formaldehyde exposure, so there’s a good chance that your child’s crib, your low-cost bookshelves, and countertops, and cabinetry all contain formaldehyde. While older furnishings may contain formaldehyde, the good news is that the majority of off-gassing occurs in the first two years of product life and older furnishings and materials do not pose a health threat.
The bad news is that formaldehyde is recognized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that exposure to high levels (above 0.1 parts per million ppm) of formaldehyde can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing; the EPA notes that in homes with significant amounts of new pressed-wood products, these levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm.
In July 2010, President Obama signed into law The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act. This act establishes standards for formaldehyde in composite-wood products. The EPA now is writing the rules for the law and sorting out how to enforce the law, which will comply with California’s standards. California stores can sell furniture and cabinetry with formaldehyde limits that surpass the legal limits until Dec. 31, 2011. Some manufacturers are complying in advance of the law and their products are marked as meeting “sustainable” standards.
Meanwhile, as you stare around your home and at all the pressboard furniture, the following tips may prevent or mitigate exposure to off-gassing:
* Look for products endorsed by third parties, such as Green Seal, a non-profit that promotes the manufacture of environmentally responsible products (www.greenseal.org).
* Use “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products in your remodeling and do-it-yourself projects and avoid the use of bare pressed-wood products made with urea-formaldehyde resins.
* Use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels; high humidity increases off-gassing.
* Increase ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home. If possible, allow new furnishings to off-gas outside for several days or weeks.
* Seal existing composite wood/particle board furniture with a non-toxic sealant.
If you want to test your home’s formaldehyde levels, a passive formaldehyde monitor, can be used. The monitor is placed in the home for a set time and mailed back to the vendor for analysis. Search the Internet for “formaldehyde test kit.”