The U.S. composite panel industry and its downstream customers were not particularly thrilled when the California Air Resource Board announced its intention to regulate formaldehyde emissions from products made with particleboard, medium density fiberboard and hardwood plywood.

Yet, in spite of some contentious moments, industry, led by the Composite Panel Assn. and the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Assn., was able to make its voice heard during the rulemaking process. The final regulation adopted in April 2007, though not totally unobjectionable to industry, is considerably less onerous than the one some industry insiders initially feared — a ban on the use of urea formaldehyde resins.

The first phase of the CARB “Airborne Toxic Control Measure to Reduce Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products” kicked in Jan. 1 without much pomp or circumstance. Manufacturers of particleboard, MDF and hardwood plywood were largely prepared to meet the required emission ceilings, as well as provisions for third-party testing of emission levels.

Because the CARB rule covers furniture, cabinets and other products sold, as well as made in California, industry views it as a de facto national regulation. Consequently, panel manufacturers have set their sights on producing panels that meet the CARB rule limits regardless of where their customers are located.
EPA Enters the Fray
As panel manufacturers wrestle with finding cost-effective ways to meet the sharply reduced formaldehyde emission limits spelled out in CARB phase 2, which begins to take effect Jan. 1, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pondering regulatory action of its own.

The EPA’s Investigation of Formaldehyde Emissions from Pressed Wood Products followed a petition filed March 24, 2008, by the Sierra Club and other groups and individuals. In essence, the petitioners asked the EPA to adopt the CARB rule as a national standard and to extend the rule to include composite wood products in manufactured homes.

The CPA and other industry associations voiced support for the petition, reasoning that the CARB rule has such a strong influence on the national marketplace, that it made sense to make it the basis for federal regulation EPA thought differently. It evaluated formaldehyde-related health-risk and other data provided by the petitioners and determined there were “significant information gaps that would need to be filled in…”

In December, the EPA published a proposed rulemaking for Formaldehyde Emissions from Pressed Wood Products in the Federal Register. As part of the public comment process, the EPA held five public forums in January, including one on Jan. 15 in Chicago, which I attended. After sitting through that two-hour session, I became more convinced that the EPA would do itself, the wood products industry and the public a big favor by adopting the CARB rule nationally and forgoing a long, protracted and costly rulemaking process.

I agree with Robert Zimmerman, innovation and sustainability scientist for ready-to-assemble furniture maker Sauder Woodworking Co. Zimmerman presented at the Chicago EPA public forum and said, “We tentatively support a federal mandate that levels the playing field and encourages all people to meet the CARB levels.” He added a few caveats to his CARB support, including, “We caution the EPA to not add anymore complexity for an already burdensome law,” and “We encourage the EPA to use caution before implementing phase 2 (of CARB). “Phase 2 may be costly or impossible to implement by the mills and may be unenforceable.”

CPA President Tom Julia, who has called the CARB formaldehyde emissions rule “the toughest production standard in the world,” also presented at the Jan. 15 forum. He said, “The issue should not be whether to move ahead with a sensible rulemaking, but how quickly and comprehensively EPA can translate what CARB has done into federal law.”

Julia also noted that a federal law is required to eliminate gaps in the CARB rule, particularly how it applies to the enforcement of imported wood products. “EPA can help make sure rules are enforced not just some of the time, but all of the time.”

By transforming the CARB rule into a national standard, the EPA would not eliminate the potential of one day putting formaldehyde under the microscope. But, the CARB rule was years in the making and took into account dozens of studies on formaldehyde’s health risks, surveys of industry production mills and dozens of public comments.

Rather than duplicate that arduous process, and in the interests of time, public safety — and dare I add taxpayers’ money — the EPA should focus its attention on converting CARB into federal law.

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