As of last Friday, remodelers may have a few more products to worry about — or to expect regulators, manufacturers and homeowners to worry about. From Saturday’s New York Times:
Government scientists listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen, and said it is found in worrisome quantities in plywood, particle board, mortuaries and hair salons….
Consumers can reduce their exposure to formaldehyde by avoiding pressed-wood products or buying only those that are labeled as U.L.E.F. (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde), N.A.F. (no added formaldehyde) or C.A.R.B. (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant.
Formaldehyde had been expected to join the carcinogens list for many years, but the chemical and manufacturing industries long downplayed its risks and argued, successfully, that further regulations would hold back businesses. Hurricane Katrina didn’t help their cause when many evacuees living in trailers developed respiratory problems believed to stem from walls and cabinets made from formaldehyde-containing particleboard.
Now that formaldehyde is on the carcinogens list, further regulation is inevitable, though it’s too soon to know whether it will be banned in the U.S., as lead paint and asbestos were in 1977 and 1989, respectively. The new development will affect remodelers, however, in that many manufacturers of products containing formaldehyde will likely remove it from their products in order to remain competitive.
“The Nasty Stuff”
Some formaldehyde basics. From Wikipedia:
Formaldehyde is used extensively in the woodworking and cabinet-making industries. Formaldehyde is used in the glues that bond particle board together….
Formaldehyde emits from a variety of construction materials, furnishings, and consumer products. The three products that emit the highest concentrations are medium density fiberboard, hardwood plywood, and particle board.
Other than the naturally occurring kind, there are two kinds of formaldehyde in building materials. Phenol formaldehyde, used in exterior plywood products, is nasty in the factory but has limited offgassing installed. Urea is the stuff that is nasty in the house and is found in typical particle board and interior plywood products.
For years, many manufacturers have been developing products that are formaldehyde-free (sometimes abbreviated NAUF, for no added urea formaldehyde). Most green building certifications require or give credit for NAUF products and projects, and at least one, the Greenguard Environmental Institute, has a formaldehyde-free verification. In the meantime, a plethora of new formaldehyde-free products are emerging, but many — so far — are specialty products and pricey.
Simple Solutions, Stronger Demands
So how can remodelers stay out of trouble with formaldehyde? As is often the case, some of the best alternatives are the cheapest.
Fortunately, of all preventative measures, keeping formaldehyde away is the easy one. For instance, almost all exterior-grade laminated or engineered-wood products are NAUF. This is because urea formaldehyde is a cheap additive but it doesn’t perform well in wet conditions. As long as remodelers use exterior-grade plywood they are fine.
Aspiring for broader change, remodelers need to pressure manufacturers and suppliers to provide safer materials at all price points.
What do you think, readers? Feel free to comment below.