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Chinese cabinets- formaldehyde and VOCs – what are the facts? Offgassing period?

BuildingFun | Posted in General Questions on

I’ve read a lot of articles on imported cabinets and seem to get completely different opinions and results from each article.   I have no clue who to believe…

1.  I’ve read that even cabinets made with formaldehyde can be off gassed completely in a few weeks.   I’ve read they can also be offgassed much faster if warmed to about 90 degrees for a day or so.   If this is true, why do we even care about “green guard certified” wood or formaldehyde content?   It takes a few weeks to arrive from china anyways.  Do other VOCs also offgas this quickly?  

2. Is there a way for me to test the cabinets for VOCs or formaldehyde on my own, if I were to purchase one as a test piece?  I have an account with EMSL Analytics and Prolab if that matters.   I’m not afraid to spend some money for peace of mind, but also want to be reasonable. 

3.  Even if I get cabinets with high VOCs or formaldehyde, wouldn’t a HRV fresh air system basically mitigate any risk?

4.  Anything else to be worried about or aware of when buying RTA cabinets from china, other than appearance and quality?   I’ve used these cabinets before and they appear to be high quality and have lasted for many years on other projects.  They are far nicer than Home Depot cabinets at half the price.

Im not looking for “I heard” or “china sucks” replies, I’m more interested in the facts and science on the dangers, if any, of using plywood cabinets with solid wood doors from China.

As always, I appreciate your time and expertise.

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  1. Expert Member


    Like some other materials and finishes, the criticism of plywood often doesn't distinguish between exposure during manufacturing, installation, and occupancy later on.

    I would have no hesitancy using Chinese plywood cabinets, and commend this blog to you from Corinne Segura, a GBA contributor:

  2. walta100 | | #2

    Some people are very sensitive to the fumes other not so much yet.
    My guess is the greater one’s exposure the more likely one is to become sensitized.

    No, I do not think they are off gassing in transit, sealed in boxes inside the almost air tight shipping container packed full of the same product.

    I got the flat packed cabinets for my laundry room without a problem.

    Do you feel lucky?


  3. andy_ | | #3

    Short of testing each cabinet before you install it, I can't think of a way to assure complete peace of mind in this. That said, I have installed RTA cabinets on various projects and like everything these days, there was a spectrum of quality and costs even from the same supplier. Most of them were ok, smelled a bit while installing, but didn't by the end of the project.
    I've also seen some fantastic quality cabinets made locally that didn't cost much more than RTA when you're comparing boxes. The hardware cost more on the local ones, but that's because they refuse to use the low quality slides and hinges you typically find on RTA units.

  4. Expert Member


    To answer your third question: It's similar to Radon. You don't want to use dilution through ventilation as your primary strategy to get rid of VOCs, but if the levels are low it helps lower them further.

    1. BuildingFun | | #5

      Thank you for your replies, I was hoping you'd chime in on this one! I appreciate your educated yet reasonable views on such topics.

      The article you linked was a great read and exactly what I was looking for. It mentions "Urea-formaldehyde (UF) offgasses more and for longer. Now, phenol-formaldehyde (PF) is more standard. You will want to make sure your furniture is made with PF or NAF glues, not UF."

      You mention having no hesitation using chinese plywood cabinets. Do you believe the chinese manufacturers have all converted to Phenol-formaldehyde or are you simply not concerned about the use of either in the amounts needed for kitchen cabinets?

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #8


        I'm assuming the Chinese cabinets are still Urea-formaldehyde, and that two things will occur: Although it takes longer and is of a higher intensity than the new formulations, the unprotected surfaces of the plywood will still off-gas relatively rapidly , and the sealed surfaces will off-gas at such a low level that dilution through ventilation will be effective in maintaining the air-quality in the house by the time it is occupied.

        Of course this isn't a cut an dried issue and there are completely legitimate arguments to be made for avoiding these chemicals in the first place.

  5. BuildingFun | | #6

    This article (of questionable validity) seems to state UF is still the most used glue in interior plywoods.

  6. Izzza | | #7

    I don’t think there is enough research yet to get a certain answer to your question, unfortunately. We decided to pay more for NAF plywood cabinets everywhere for peace of mind. I think the best you’ll be able to find is that the Chinese plywood cabinets are “probably” safe. And in 10 years perhaps new research might come out about other chemicals they’re using. The problem is the lack of regulation and testing, you could test a piece yourself but you have no way of knowing if the material will be consistent with your sample.

    I think getting NAF plywood cabs would be cheaper/less time consuming that essentially doing a full study with a decent sample size testing Chinese plywood cabinets.

  7. BuildingFun | | #9

    I just bought a couple PM2.5/formaldehyde/TVOC air testers from Amazon for about $180 each. It will be interesting to play with them and also take them to the cabinet showrooms. Although I must admit, I'm not sure how much I trust this Chinese made tester either. ahahahaha

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