New or reuse and formaldehyde

Our goal is to minimize the use of new stuff, maximize the integration of reused materials and achieve good indoor air quality (IAQ) levels.

How are these items connected? Through formaldehyde.

Many composite wood products such as plywood, particle board and fiberboard contain urea-formaldehyde resins. A lot of furniture products, including cabinets, are at least partially made of composite wood products and may release (outgas) formaldehyde into the air.

Formaldehyde has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA and as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Because of the various adverse health effects, the presence of formaldehyde in our living spaces can become a major problem. A recent example is the FEMA trailer incident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The new and CARB compliant

We need cabinets for the kitchen and the bathroom. One option is to buy new cabinets at a home improvement store. If so, we could select cabinets that are CARB compliant.

CARB stands for California Air Resources Board, which is a division under the California Environmental Protection Agency. This agency has been working on standards that reduce the emission of formaldehyde from composite wood products.

The CARB standard has been integrated into the “Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act”, which was recently signed into law.

Say we buy cabinets that are partially made from particle board and are CARB compliant. The permissible emission of formaldehyde is limited to 0.09 ppm (parts-per-million).

According to the EPA, typical formaldehyde levels in homes can range from well below 0.1 ppm to more than 0.3 ppm.

Let’s put these numbers into the context of the 0.09 ppm CARB compliant level. It means that we still would have some formaldehyde outgas into our living space, but at a greatly reduced rate compared to non CARB compliant products.

Time dependency

Here is another interesting fact. Formaldehyde in composite wood products is emitted at decreasing rates over time. In other words, particle board that comes hot of the press from the manufacturer is likely to emit significantly more formaldehyde than particle board that is several years old.

A graph on the University of Minnesota web site (School of Public Health), nicely demonstrates the time dependency of the emission levels. Another long term study describes the time dependency in term of ¾ and half life.

The reuse option

The alternative to buying new and CARB compliant cabinets is to source older and used cabinets, which were in all likelihood not CARB compliant.

Is it reasonable to assume that those cabinets are more likely to emit more formaldehyde? I am afraid that there is no black and white answer to this because of the time dependency factor.

There is a fair probability that new and CARB compliant cabinets would produce more formaldehyde emission than seasoned and used cabinets, because most of the formaldehyde has been already emitted.

Weighing the factors

If we buy new cabinets that contain some composite wood products but are CARB compliant, we would limit the emission to 0.09 ppm and declining over time.

If we buy older and used cabinets, the emission level may be significantly below 0.09 ppm, or way above – who knows. Although, if they would be way above, one probably would smell it. Formaldehyde has pungent scent typical of new plywood or particle board.

The other thing to keep in mind is that formaldehyde is always present at low levels in our environment. The University of Minnesota, School of Public Health lists 0.03 ppm as normal indoor and outdoor levels (less in rural and more in urban environments).

Also, formaldehyde can be easily removed from indoor environments through ventilation. This puts us in a good position with our ERV ventilation system.

But still, how much formaldehyde would we introduce and how much would be too much?

Conclusion?

I wish I could present and nice and slick conclusion – but I can’t. We could limit formaldehyde emission by using furniture that does not contain composite wood products. That would be pretty nice but also expensive furniture.

I guess the whole formaldehyde question comes down to auxiliary factors, such as reuse versus new, time dependency, relying on my sniffer, cost and some common sense.

Hmmm. Variables, variables! Can you tell how my German toe nails begin to curl upwards?

About Marcus de la fleur

Marcus is a Registered Landscape Architect with a horticultural degree from the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Sheffield, UK. He developed a landscape based sustainable pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. in 2002, and has expanded his skill set to building science. Starting in 2009, Marcus applied the newly acquired expertise to the deep energy retrofit of his 100+ year old home in Chicago.

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