The Fuss about Formaldehyde

Let me guess: Like me, you didn’t ace that chemistry 101 final in high school or college. But your customers look to you as an authority on building supplies. So, you may be fielding this increasingly common question: “What’s all the fuss about formaldehyde?”

Most of us think of formaldehyde as embalming fluid or preservative. But formaldehyde is a chemical used in glues and adhesives, and a preservative used in paints and finishes. It reacts with phenol, urea or melamine to produce phenol-formaldehyde resins, urea-formaldehyde resin and melamine resin. PF resin generally emits much less formaldehyde than UF resin. You will see products are labeled as urea-formaldehyde-free PF products, which are indeed environmentally preferred.

Formaldehyde is so widely used that annual international production is well over 45 billions pounds. Unfortunately, if a product off-gasses formaldehyde, it is a “probable human carcinogen” according to the U.S. EPA. I want to underscore the word if, because formaldehyde in building products is not an indoor air pollutant if it doesn’t get into the air, or if it off-gasses at such low levels that it is not hazardous.

Formaldehyde has received a lot of press lately because of green building and indoor air quality. Indoor air quality regularly scores among the highest concerns for people who are building green. That’s understandable. Ask any parent if they want junior breathing a probable human carcinogen, 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 this, the whole-house green rating programs like LEED grant points to projects that use low-emitting products, and wood products that fall into this category.

Manufacturers responded to the market demand for formaldehyde-free products. Though these products often command a premium price, you can now find formaldehyde-free or low-emitting MDF, particleboard, plywood, melamine, OSB, flooring and even siding.

Some insulation batts use formaldehyde in their binders. But it’s not a problem if it doesn’t off-gas at harmful levels. The strict and nationally influential California Air Resources Board’s indoor air quality guideline recommends the use of insulation materials that “emit little or no formaldehyde.” So use zero- or low-emitting products. For guidance, verify the little or no formaldehyde claim through a third-party certification. Or use products that have been accepted by the California High Performance Schools program.

Other formaldehyde derivatives include diisocyanate products used in polyurethane paints and foams. In this category, you can find isocyanate-free, and formaldehyde-free or low-emitting foams and paints. By using these products, you will be offering green selections across multiple categories. It’s not only a green thing to do, but it’s a good thing to tell people about.