New Formaldehyde Regulations Are Coming

If you think the focus on the health risks of formaldehyde is for sissies, I beg to differ. Formaldehyde is “probably a human carcinogen,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it’s labeled a “known human carcinogen” by other agencies. Now, new, stiffer formaldehyde regs are coming down the pike that will affect you and the price of items you install, especially cabinets.

Besides being a carcinogen, formaldehyde is also a VOC, or volatile organic compound. Just for background, since many people use the term VOC without really knowing what it means: A VOC product is volatile because it evaporates at room temperature, and organic because it’s carbon-based. (For example, gasoline is a VOC because it’s a hydrocarbon and evaporates if you just set it out. So, the next time someone tells you that everything organic is harmless, give ’em a cup of high-test).

Formaldehyde Widely Used

Formaldehyde is widely used in glues and adhesives; it’s a preservative in paints and finishes, too. It’s also found in many manufactured products like insulation and some sheetgoods, cabinets and furniture, especially if they use medium-density fiberboard, particleboard and plywood.

When formaldehyde reacts with phenol, urea or melamine, it produces phenol-formaldehyde resins (PF), urea-formaldehyde resin (UF) and melamine resin. Phenolic resin emits less formaldehyde than urea resin, so you will see products labeled urea-formaldehyde-free, implying it’s the lesser of two evils.

Also, insulation products, like those from Owens Corning, contain formaldehyde in the binder that holds the glass fiber together, but the formaldehyde is mostly locked in and will not off-gas at harmful levels. This condition is called “low-emitting,” and Owens Corning has gone to great lengths to get that low-emitting status certified by third parties. However, consumer fear of formaldehyde has driven companies like Johns Manville and CertainTeed, among others, to offer formaldehyde-free insulation.

New Formaldehyde Laws

In July 2010, President Obama signed a new law that limits formaldehyde levels in wood, and it’s remarkable because it will affect the types and cost of cabinets available to remodelers. The law will be phased in (with the EPA writing implementation laws), but this is a clear trend to limit and eventually eliminate formaldehyde in building products, as far as possible. (Note that formaldehyde naturally occurs in some wood fiber, and that’s why you see claims that products have “no added formaldehyde.” No wood products are truly formaldehyde-free.)

Today, you can show your awareness of formaldehyde’s health risks by offering formaldehyde-free products in advance of the new laws. The law Obama signed follows the lead of the strict California law that limits formaldehyde content in some plywood and particleboard products.

The fact that California took the lead here is nothing new. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, will often issue a ruling that manufacturers comply with because they don’t want to lose access to California markets. The manufacturer subsequently offers the product nationally. You may also see labels on products that say “California compliant” or “California schools compliant” to show that the products comply with the nation’s toughest air quality standards.

The new federal Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act effectively sets national emission standards at 0.09 parts per million (ppm) by January 1, 2013. Where you will first see this take effect is in plywood, particleboard and MDF, and you may see prices rise as much as 15 percent, as manufacturers turn to more costly compliance adhesives.

On product labels, you will see various claims about formaldehyde, ranging from “formaldehyde-free,” and “no-formaldehyde-added” (which is essentially a formaldehyde-free claim), to “no added urea-formaldehyde,” which leaves open the possibility that phenol formaldehyde was used instead.

If you want to offer a formaldehyde-free product to your clients in advance of the new laws, or your clients request formaldehyde-free products, carefully read the cabinet product literature and call the company’s tech-rep to ask which laws the cabinets comply with, voluntarily or not.