If you think that the focus on the health risks of formaldehyde is for sissies, I beg you to reconsider. Formaldehyde is a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Now, new, stiffer formaldehyde regulations are coming down the pike that will affect you and the price of items you spec and install, especially cabinets. You will be required to use products with proscribed, reduced formaldehyde levels. These new regulations are even more aggressive than the last wave in 2008.
Besides being a carcinogen, formaldehyde is also a volatile organic compound, or VOC. 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 set it out in open air.
SHOW your awareness of formaldehyde’s health risks by offering no-added formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free products in advance of the new laws.
Formaldehyde is widely used in glues and adhesives; it’s a preservative in paints and finishes, too. It’s also found in products like insulation, cabinets and furniture. When formaldehyde reacts with phenol, urea or melamine, it produces phenol-formaldehyde resins (PF), urea-formaldehyde resin (UF) or melamine resin. PF “phenolic” resin emits less formaldehyde than UF “urea” resin. Products are labeled “urea-formaldehyde-free,” implying it’s the lesser of two evils. Also, some insulation products 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 some companies have 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. This will affect the types and cost of cabinets available to anyone who designs, builds or remodels houses. The law will be phased in but this is a clear trend to limit and eventually eliminate formaldehyde in building products as much as possible. Today, you can show your awareness of formaldehyde’s health risks by offering no-added formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free products in advance of the new laws.
The law follows the lead of the strict California law that limits formaldehyde content in some plywood and particleboard products. If you work in California, or design for California clients, you may already be subject to state-specific laws that supersede the new federal standards.
The new federal Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act effectively sets national emission standards at 0.09 PPM by Jan. 1, 2013. You will first see this take effect in plywood, particleboard, and MDF. You may see prices rise as much as 15 percent, as manufacturers turn to more costly compliance adhesives.
Some wood suppliers and cabinet companies aren’t waiting for the new standard, and they already offer formaldehyde-free products. Years ago, Columbia Forest Products went to soy-based adhesive, and now offer no-formaldehyde-added sheetgoods. Many cabinet companies already offer product lines that address the formaldehyde issue, with varying types of claims, such as formaldehyde-free lines from Greenline Cabinets, Green Leaf Cabinetry, Henrybuilt, Neil Kelly Cabinets and Pacific Crest Industries, to name a few.
You will see various claims on product labels about formaldehyde, ranging from “formaldehyde-free,” and “no-formaldehyde-added,” 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, carefully read the cabinet product literature, and call the company’s tech-rep to ask which laws the cabinets comply with, voluntarily or not. That’s the only way to have real confidence that you are offering a nontoxic product.