What’s All the Fuss About Formaldehyde?

Let me guess: Like me, you didn’t ace that chemistry 101 final in high school or college. Yet you may be fielding this increasingly common question: “What’s all the fuss about formaldehyde?”

Most of us think of formaldehyde as an embalming fluid or preservative. But formaldehyde — a “VOC,” or volatile organic compound — is a widely used chemical in glues and adhesives and is a preservative used in paints and finishes. Formaldehyde reacts with phenol, urea or melamine to produce phenol-formaldehyde resins (PF), urea-formaldehyde resin (UF) and melamine resin. Unfortunately, if it off-gasses, formaldehyde is a “probable human carcinogen,” according to the EPA.

PF “phenolic” resin generally emits much less formaldehyde than UF “urea” resin, so you are seeing products that are labeled as “urea-formaldehyde-free” products, which are indeed environmentally preferred, though only marginally so.

Formaldehyde is so widely used that annual international production is well over 45 billions lbs. But formaldehyde has gotten lots of press lately because of attention to green building and indoor air quality. Indoor air quality regularly scores among the highest concerns for people who are remodeling green. That’s understandable. Ask any mom or dad if they want junior breathing a probable human carcinogen as he scurries across the carpet or laminate floor, and they will say, “Absolutely not, and I’ll pay any price to keep it out of my house.” So, even though there are many chemicals that are suspected of causing health problems, formaldehyde is one of those chemicals that clearly shouldn’t be breathed by anyone.

In response to these concerns and the carcinogenic nature of formaldehyde, whole-house green rating agencies, like LEED, grant points to projects that use low-emitting products, and to wood products that fall into this category. Plus, as you might expect, manufacturers have responded to the market demand for formaldehyde-free or third-party-certified “low-emitting” materials that contain formaldehyde. Though these materials often command a premium price (and therefore offer you potentially higher margins), you can now find formaldehyde-free or low-emitting MDF, particleboard, plywood, melamine, OSB and flooring. (Note that MDF products that contain formaldehyde can be some of the highest off-gassing building materials, square inch for square inch. So look for low-emitting or zero-emitting products, often designated by an E1 rating.)

Some insulation batts use formaldehyde in their binders and it is considered a hazard if it off-gasses. I want to underscore the if, because formaldehyde in building products is not an indoor air pollutant if the formaldehyde doesn’t get into the air, or if it off gasses as such low levels that it is not hazardous. The very strict — and nationally influential — California Air Resources Board (in its Indoor Air Quality Guideline) recommends the use of insulation materials that “emit little or no formaldehyde.” And many agencies will refer to that California CARB standard, whether they sell products there or not. Johns Manville has been marketing a formaldehyde-free insulation line and making real note of it in their marketing. On the other hand, Owens Corning has an insulation product that contains formaldehyde, yet it is third-party certified to be low-emitting, making it environmentally comparable to the JM product. For guidance when specifying products, verify the “low-emitting or formaldehyde-free” claims through a third-party certification, such as those from GreenGuard or SCS, two of the agencies that Owens Corning uses. Or you can source products that have been accepted by the California High Performance Schools (CHPS) program, another very strict standard.

Other formaldehyde derivatives include diisocyanate products used in polyurethane paints and foams. In this product category as well, you can find isocyanate-free, and formaldehyde-free or low-emitting foams and paints. By sourcing these products, as well as the formaldehyde-free or low-emitting wood materials, you will be offering green selections across multiple categories. It’s not only a very green thing to do, but it’s a good thing to tell your client about, as it’s an easy green step to take and one that’s simple to understand.