Formaldehyde in Wood Products
By Rich Van Winkle
Since the 60 Minutes report regarding Lumber Liquidators (aired on 1 March, 2015) and their use of Chinese made flooring products which measured as having far too much formaldehyde to be sold in the U.S., the media has poorly reported about the issue. The story included home-owners who were concerned enough to rip up installed flooring and the subsequent reporting has generated considerable misunderstanding. Here are some facts that reporters might have noted first…
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical that is present in outdoor air. It is produced naturally by combustion of wood and in photochemical reactions. We produce formaldehyde in many common activities such as smoking cigarettes, burning gasoline. Formaldehyde is present naturally in our bodies (as an essential building block of cells) and at rather high levels in many foods, including apples and onions. Thus, formaldehyde is always present in our environment at low levels. But then, formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen and at higher levels is highly toxic. When dealing with formaldehyde, it’s all about the level.
When considering wood product formaldehyde emissions, one should start with an understanding of the various commonly used adhesives. Formaldehyde based adhesives come in two common forms: urea-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde. Formaldehyde related problems almost always arise from certain urea-formaldehyde adhesives and almost never with phenol-formaldehyde adhesives. Thus, it would be meaningless to call your supplier and ask whether your flooring, paneling, or other wood products used formaldehyde based adhesives. (And, as noted below, it also makes little difference how the product is labeled). Wood product manufacturers almost always use formaldehyde based adhesives just as they received from the resin manufacturers.
Urea-formaldehyde adhesives are fairly cheap and are used almost exclusively in products that are intended to be indoors where high moisture resistance is not required. Such products include decorative wall panels, finishing (MDF) trim, particleboards, manufactured beams, cabinets, flooring products, and shelving. Urea formaldehyde bonded wood is water resistant, but not waterproof. It also has less desirable fire resistance properties.
Phenol-formaldehyde adhesives are fairly expensive (being derived from petroleum oil ) and are used almost exclusively in products that are intended to be outdoors or will be exposed to high amounts of moisture. Such products include structural plywood, exterior siding, and decking products. Phenol-formaldehyde bonded wood is pretty much water waterproof and retains its strength better when heated.
All formaldehyde based adhesives have some level of “free” unbound formaldehyde (where the chemical might actually enter the environment and adversely affect people). But phenol based formaldehyde adhesives have very low levels (typically less than 0.1%) of unreacted (“free”) formaldehyde because the chemical structure is a tightly bound polymer (a resin plastic). Because the adhesive is more expensive to produce, manufactures making it and using it are generally more careful in its application.
Urea-formaldehyde adhesives may also be produced to have low levels of free formaldehyde, but doing so increases their cost. Thus, companies looking to reduce their cost for manufacturing wood products often use lower-cost higher-risk urea-formaldehyde adhesives that are not properly prepared. They also tend to use less care in production since adhesive wastage may be cheaper than proper application processing. Poorly manufactured urea-formaldehyde glued products may release free formaldehyde at a level in excess of 20 times what is considered safe.
How and when wood products release formaldehyde is a complex subject with both obvious and subtle variables. The methods used for testing are somewhat controversial since they may be far removed from conditions in the “real world”. They are also expensive. But since 2008, when California adopted emissions controls and regulations to address formaldehyde exposure from composite wood products, manufacturers have been required to determine their own compliance and to properly label their products. This is known as the “CARB Phase 2 standard” (or just “CARB-2”). However, as industry experts have stated: “Without strict enforcement of the rule, there is too much opportunity for unscrupulous manufacturers and fabricators to try and cheat the system and supply non-compliant products.” It has been recognized that the most critical work yet to be done is the development of a workable, equitable enforcement mechanism so that the certification of overseas producers and the testing of finished consumer goods is properly executed.
Under the new federal rules (TSCA Title VI) producers, fabricators, manufacturers, and retailers are required to meet more rigorous testing requirements, more detailed record-keeping requirements, and follow more extensive reporting requirements. But there is still a lack of enforcement and, and as the 60 Minutes segment showed, it remains easy for those who lack honor to mislabel and improperly sell non-compliant products. This not only creates potential harm to end-users, it harms domestic companies that face more rigorous civil enforcement and who choose to be lawful and responsible.
(1) "Formaldehyde Release from Wood Panel Products Bonded with Phenol Formaldehyde Adhesives" by J.A. Emery, American Plywood Association (1986 at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/bk-1986-0316.ch003.
(3) “Indoor Pollutants” by the Committee on Indoor Pollutants, Board on Toxicology and Environmental Health Hazards, National Research Council, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. (1981) at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=1711.
(4) “Occupational Exposure to Formaldehyde” by the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 29 CFR Parts 1910 and 1926 at https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=10075&p_table=STANDARDS.
(5) “California Passes Tough Limits on Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Panels” from the Composite Panel Association (www.pbmdf.com) at http://www.decorativesurfaces.org/userfiles/filemanager/529/
(6) “The Inside Story, A Guide to Indoor Air Quality” a Report by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C, EPA Document #402-K-93-007, (1995) at http://www.nchh.org/Portals/0/Contents/EPA_Inside_Story_Guide_to_Air_Quality.pdf.
(8) “Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material”, USDA – Forest Service FPL-GTR-190 (2008) at http://www.woodweb.com/Resources/wood_eng_handbook/wood_handbook_fpl_2010.pdf
Permitted Use Notice: This document may be reproduced without fee or advance permission with proper attribution and inclusion of the copyright notice.
 See “Formaldehyde and Facts About Health Effects” prepared by Formaldehyde Epidemiology, Toxicology and Environmental Group, Inc. (FETEG), August 2002 and http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/consumer_faq.pdf
 In 2010, President Obama signed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act into law which adds a Title VI to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and establishes limits for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. The TSCA formaldehyde emission standards mirror those of CARB-2.
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