Is Your Furniture Hazardous to Your Health? 4 Lessons to Learn About Formaldehyde

There is no good logic that can explain to the consumer why formaldehyde — a chemical that is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) — is still on the market without any federal standards for emissions allowed in homes (except for prefabricated or mobile homes). Its toxicity was news to many.

Fortunately, there is a move afoot to change the amount of formaldehyde emissions allowed in indoor air. California set formaldehyde-emission standards at 0.09 parts per million in 2007 to go into effect in 2009, and some industry and environmental groups are lobbying Congress to have the standards become national. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched research into the toxicity of formaldehyde as well.

In the meantime, what are we to do about our contemporary desks, bookshelves and building supplies made from formaldehyde-full wood? And the kitchen cabinets that have a wood veneer over the particleboard? Where does one begin looking for the sources of formaldehyde in the home? And how much formaldehyde is really safe?

What exactly is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a high volume chemical commonly found in the home. It is the adhesive resin that holds composite woods (such as particleboard, plywood and medium-density fiberboard) together and has a similar function in other products. It is also a common disinfectant. In the home, it is found in furniture and cabinets, many building materials, paper goods, upholstery fabrics and even cosmetics.

4 Lessons to Learn About Formaldehyde

My personal experiences with formaldehyde are worth repeating because they can offer some universal lessons about the chemical.

1. Formaldehyde volatizes quickly when heated. 

The chemical volatizes quickly as it heats up and is a volatile organic chemical (VOC).

I first learned about formaldehyde hazards when a family member became severely sensitive to it at work. There was formaldehyde in a bulletin board built onto the wall near a window in his office. Every time the intense Denver sun streamed through his office window, it would heat up the bulletin board. The increase in temperature would turn the glue into a gas and release it into the air.

Solution: Remove all composite wood from heat.

This includes removing all composite wood from contact with heaters, kitchen stoves, direct sunlight, etc.

My relative’s chronic exposure to the formaldehyde-full gas in the air led to a waterfall effect with other chemicals. Formaldehyde was a sensitizer for him, and he gradually became sensitive to many other chemicals.

2. Formaldehyde is a “potent sensitizer.”

The CDC calls formaldehyde a “potent sensitizer," meaning that exposure to the chemical can be a catalyst for people to become allergic to chemicals when they weren’t to begin with.

Formaldehyde can also cause — as it did for my relative — watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea and difficulty in breathing at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm, according to the EPA.

Solution: Be wary of wood that's been glued together.

Having become aware of formaldehyde dangers, I began to look into this colorless, highly toxic and flammable gas when looking for a home to buy. Once I found a house that seemed great in all other ways, I checked out possible sources of formaldehyde. The house didn’t contain enough of the chemical to smell it; that much I knew, as formaldehyde has a cloying smell and I would have been aware of it. I could have tested for formaldehyde (check online for test kits), but instead I looked for it: I figured that the more wood there was that had been glued together, the more formaldehyde.

Sure enough, the kitchen cabinets were a veneer over pressed wood. They were old, but were they old enough to be all out-gassed?

3. Formaldehyde never fully outgases from materials.

Because formaldehyde is structurally part of engineered wood, it never fully outgases from materials, although it lessens over time.

Solution: Seal in the formaldehyde.

What to do since replacing the cabinets would be financially prohibitive? Seal in the formaldehyde! There is a product on the market — AFM Safe Seal — a multi-use, water-based, low gloss sealer for highly porous surfaces such as particle board, plywood, processed wood and porous concrete. You will never know that it is on the cabinets or furniture once it has cured. Seal in desks, cabinets or any other pressed-wood furniture.

However, further investigation uncovered a more challenging source of pressed wood in my home, one room with a pressed wood subflooring under a carpet. There was no way to fully seal in the underside of this subflooring. So what could I do? I had to remove it.

4. Removing the formaldehyde source as fast as possible gets rid of contamination.   

Because formaldehyde is so volatile, it doesn’t “cling” to things — it dissipates very quickly. So removing the source as fast as possible removes the contamination.

Solution: Repalce with formaldehyde-free alternatives.

Opt for real wood or formaldehyde-free plywood. Exterior-grade plywood has the least amount of formaldehyde. Innovative companies are also creating formaldehyde-free resins.

Furnishings, cleaning products and personal care products all carry their own formaldehyde problems. But these are easier to remove or simply not buy in the future — there are nontoxic furniture alternatives on the market.

It took a few important steps to remove the formaldehyde in my home, but I am glad that I did it. Yes, I could have had the house tested for formaldehyde first, and found that it was at an “acceptable” level, but I tend to want my indoor air to be as pure and natural as possible. Just knowing that the chemical was lurking there at all would disturb me, especially in the winter when the house is closed up for heating season.


Annie B. Bond is founding editor of greenchicafe.com and best-selling author of five books on green living. Check out her eco-friendly blogs on Gaiam.

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