The federal regulation that definitively addresses formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products sold in the United States was published in the Federal Register on Dec. 12, 2016, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  If properly enforced, the regulation can ensure that all products – both domestic and imported composite wood panels and the finished products containing them – meet the world’s most stringent standards for formaldehyde emissions.  It also marks the culmination of over 30 years of product stewardship by the composite wood industry, which through voluntary efforts and consistent and progressive work with regulators, has successfully developed products that consistently meet or exceed these tough standards.

Click here to access a quick EPA Rule reference guide, developed by the Composite Panel Association.

Background

The universe of composite wood panels includes medium density fiberboard (MDF), particleboard, hardboard, and engineered wood siding and trim.  MDF and particleboard are covered under the new regulation. These panels are primarily constructed using recycled wood residuals (i.e., sawdust, shavings, secondary wood chips) from other wood product manufacturers, such as sawmills, planer mills and plywood plants.  The fibers are glued together using resin technology, which in many cases is formaldehyde-based.  Composite wood panels are used in hundreds of applications, including home and office furniture, residential and commercial cabinetry, store fixtures, millwork and moulding, laminate flooring, electronics, toys and musical instruments.

Composite wood panels are used in a variety of applications including cabinetry, furniture and retail fixtures.

The North American industry, through its trade association the Composite Panel Association (CPA), developed voluntary standards for formaldehyde emissions limits over 30 years ago.  Since that time, the industry has partnered with resin manufacturers to develop formaldehyde-based resin technologies that now emit formaldehyde levels at or near the levels that occur naturally from wood itself.  The CPA worked closely with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in developing and implementing its 2008 formaldehyde emissions regulation, and has since taken the lead in voluntarily complying with these regulations for all production, whether destined for sale in California or elsewhere.  The stewardship of the domestic industry has been repeatedly recognized, most recently in the 60 Minutes exposé on Lumber Liquidators Chinese-made laminate flooring — where all of the U.S.-made flooring tested by CBS did not exceed CARB emission levels. 

Recognizing the need for a level regulatory playing field for all states, not just in California, the CPA took the lead in forming a coalition of NGO, labor union and industry stakeholders to work with Congress to enact legislation that would implement the California emissions standards nationally.  In July 2010, the bipartisan “Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act,” which became Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was enacted.  The law established on a national basis the formaldehyde emission limits from the CARB regulation, and directed EPA to promulgate implementing regulations as close as possible to the California provisions. 

Finally, despite significant delay, EPA issued a pre-publication version of these regulations on July 27, with the final regulation published in the Federal Register on Dec. 12, 2016.

Composite panels: a closeup view

Regulation scope and timing

As required in the legislation, EPA’s regulation is largely consistent with CARB.  The scope of covered products includes hardwood plywood, particleboard and MDF.  Hardboard remains exempt, although EPA has limited the exemption to boards with emissions that do not exceed 0.06 ppm.  What is also new, and what was most controversial during the comment phase of the regulation, is the inclusion of a narrow group of veneered products, or what the EPA refers to as “laminated products.”  These are defined as composite wood panels with an attached wood or woody grass veneer (i.e.. bamboo) that are then used in the production of a component part or finished good.  The scope of "laminated products" DOES NOT include other veneer types, papers or other surface finishes commonly used with composite wood.  Products made with these finishes are, however, considered to be “finished goods” and must use “compliant” composite wood substrates.     

The requirements of the final regulation go into effect one year after publication in the Federal Register, or Dec. 12, 2017, with some limited exceptions.  The regulation includes a new requirement for certification of imports of composite wood panels or products made with composite wood that will apply on Dec. 12, 2018.  Fabricators of laminated products must document the use of compliant composite wood panels by Dec. 12, 2017.  For all other requirements respecting laminated products, the regulation allows seven years for fabricators to reach compliance (Dec. 12, 2023).  

Requirements for panel producers

The federal regulation applies the same CARB emission limits for hardwood plywood (0.05 ppm), MDF (0.11 ppm), thin MDF (0.13 ppm) and particleboard (0.09 ppm).  The regulation also puts in place a rigorous third-party certification system.  Current CARB certifying bodies will automatically be recognized as certifiers for the national program for two years.   Panel manufacturers that use ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) and no-added formaldehyde (NAF) resins are still eligible for reduced testing and exemption from third-party certification.  The regulation implements the same CARB testing methodologies, and includes methods for recognition of equivalency and correlation of test methods.  Panel producers will also find that the EPA regulation calls for similar labeling, reporting and record-keeping requirements.    

There are also several notable provisions that are new or that differ somewhat from the CARB approach that will be important for panel producers.  The regulation establishes a new process for managing non-complying lots, including a requirement that panel manufacturers provide notice to customers within 72 hours of learning of non-compliance.  The regulation calls for labeling of panels as “TSCA Title VI Compliant,” and also calls for development of a system to track panels once they are separated from their bundle.  Compliance records must also be kept for three years, as opposed to two under CARB. 

CPA's International Testing and Certification Center (ITCC) is accredited through the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board

Requirements for fabricators of laminated panels

The regulatory requirements for fabricators that make laminated products are dictated by the type of resin (or glue) that is used to attach the veneer to the composite wood panel, and are essentially divided into two types.  The first type refers to panels which have a wood or woody grass veneer attached to a composite wood substrate with a no added formaldehyde (NAF) or phenol-formaldehyde resin.  Fabricators of these laminated products must use compliant composite wood substrates, but are exempt from other requirements, except for recordkeeping. 

The second type refers to panels that use any other formaldehyde-based resin to attach a wood or woody grass veneer (i.e., urea-formaldehyde: UF, ULEF).  In addition to the requirement to use compliant core material, the second type of laminated products must also meet the emissions limit for hardwood plywood (0.05 ppm).  Fabricators must also comply with all certification, recordkeeping and testing requirements.

Next steps – enforcement

As the Trump administration takes over implementation of this regulation, the CPA and its members will be working closely with EPA to encourage strong enforcement to ensure a level playing field for all products, whether produced here in North America or overseas.  North American manufacturers have made significant investments to comply with these stringent standards, including technology upgrades in resin and manufacturing processes and third-party verification systems.  Without adequate enforcement, these efforts will put North American industry at a competitive disadvantage to imports that have not invested as heavily.  Consumers also deserve the full commitment from regulators to ensure the products they put in their homes meet the highest standards.  The North American composite wood industry has made such a commitment, and we look to EPA to dedicate itself to enforcing this important regulation in the future.

Jackson Morrill is the president of the Composite Panel Association. Founded in 1960, the CPA represents the North American wood-based composite panel and decorative surfacing industries on technical standards, industry regulation, and product acceptance. CPA General Members include the leading manufacturers of particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF), hardboard and engineered wood siding/trim in North America, representing more than 92% of industry manufacturing capacity.  CPA also operates the largest laboratory testing and certification program for composite panel products in North America, and the first one approved by the California Air Resources Board.  For more information, visit  CompositePanel.org.