Formaldehyde’s usefulness as a building block for the resins that bind plywood, particleboard, medium density fiberboard, and other building materials is rivaled mainly by its toxicity.
As noted in a June 2007 Environmental Building News post, the International Agency for Cancer Research in 2004 reclassified formaldehyde from “probable human carcinogen” to “known human carcinogen.” And in April 2007, the California Air Resources Board set strict standards – which are taking effect in two phases between 2009 and 2012 – for formaldehyde emissions from panel products sold in the state.
An older, long-used standard for formaldehyde emissions in such products, established in 1985 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, set the maximum allowable concentration of 0.3 parts per million, when tested according to ASTM guidelines for products used in manufactured homes. According to CARB estimates, however, that level of exposure can lead to unacceptably high cancer risks: 23–62 childhood cancer cases per million children, and 86–231 lifetime cancer cases per million.
CARB on Capitol Hill
Two U.S. Senators, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Idaho Republican Mike Crapo, agreed with the CARB’s approach to the issue and last month introduced a bill, S.1660, that would adopt on a national basis CARB’s standards for formaldehyde emissions.
CARB’s emission limits for veneer-core hardwood plywood, for example, are 0.08 ppm for the first phase of the standard (which took effect January 1 for this product) and 0.05 ppm for the second phase (January 1, 2010). The phase-one standard for MDF, meanwhile, is 0.21 ppm (it took effect January 1 as well), while the second-phase standard (set for January 1, 2012) is 0.13 ppm.
That certainly is fine with GBA, which advocates using materials that off-gas less formaldehyde. But the legislation also is being embraced by an industry group whose members use panel-constructed products extensively: the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association.
For KCMA, a national standard would help dispel customer concerns and misleading claims about the safety of composite materials used in cabinets, although it’s not yet clear what the cost of compliance will be. As the EBN article points out, once phase two compliance is reached, the added cost to a customer using hardwood plywood in a 2,000-sq-ft house might be in the range of $400, based on CARB estimates.
It’s also likely that new, formaldehyde-free panel products – such as those being produced by “biocomposite” specialist e2e Materials – will become more widely available and embraced as viable substitutes for plywood, particleboard, and MDF.
In a press release issued last week, KCMA’s president, Kevin O’Neill, said a “national standard requiring low-emitting composite wood will be well-received by the cabinet industry. The standards will be the lowest in the world.”
O’Neill added that KCMA’s Environmental Stewardship Program began recognizing CARB-compliant materials eight months ago, and there now are more than 150 certified companies and brands in the program that are listed on the program’s “Green Cabinet Source” website, which highlights ESP initiatives aimed at advancing green practices in the industry.