W&WP August 2004


Formaldehyde Under Fire

By Rich Christianson


An international panel of scientists has renewed the public debate about formaldehyde's health effects. The timing could hardly be worse for manufacturers of composite panels, allied industry suppliers and their customers.

Based on its interpretation of epidemiological studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer recently recommended that formaldehyde's status be elevated from a "probable'' to a "known" human carcinogen.

On the one hand, IARC's assertion that prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare form of sinal cancer, fans the flames of potential regulatory action on composite wood panels by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). On the other, it pours water on the industry's attempts to gain wider acceptance for composite wood products in the burgeoning "green building" movement. This holds particularly true for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Development System that is gaining increased credibility not only with architects and designers but also with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well.

Formaldehyde 101

Formaldehyde, a clear, simple chemical, marked by its pungent odor, is most readily associated with embalming fluid and frogs in jars. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. This important chemical is one of nature's building blocks and is naturally produced in all living things - including humans. It also is an important chemical used in myriad man-made products from paper and carpets to nail polish and permanent press fabrics. It also happens to make a very cost-efficient, strong glue; urea-formaldehyde resins are widely used in the manufacture of particleboard, medium density fiberboard, plywood and other engineered woods. Urea-formaldehyde is also a key ingredient for acid-catalyzed finishes that provide durability to cabinets and furniture.

Industry Takes the High Ground

When health concerns over formaldehyde surfaced in the early 1980s, leading to regulatory activity by the EPA, OSHA and other federal and state agencies, the composite panel industry responded by developing products with dramatically reduced emission levels, a trend that continues to this day.

In spite of these advances, because composite wood products are considered the No. 1 source of formaldehyde in the home and office, CARB is considering the development of a control measure to reduce formaldehyde emissions from them. CARB is working on the premise that "there is no level of exposure below which the risk of developing cancer is zero."

Industry groups, including the Composite Panel Assn., Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Assn. and the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Assn., rightfully contest that applying such a narrow-minded logic to the regulatory review process unfairly skews the weight of the evidence against manufacturers who rely on formaldehyde for their products. While CARB's no-zero-risk approach does not state that today's wood products containing formaldehyde are dangerous, it implies that they might pose a risk no matter how low the emission or exposure limit.

This not only defies the conventional wisdom that there are threshold limits based on a complex interaction between emission levels and length of time of exposure, but sends a disturbing message to consumers that the industry would just as soon not have to counter.

The wood products industry is obviously concerned that CARB could develop an emission standard that is far more stringent than any other currently on the books for composite wood products.

What will transpire? Stay tuned.


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