In the last year, the health hazards associated with the off-gassing of unsafe levels of formaldehyde from laminate flooring products made in China have made headlines. Formaldehyde is a common component of the glue used to bind many wood composites. Manufacturers in countries without stringent health and safety standards produced products with elevated formaldehyde levels to reduce costs, while also making false claims that the products were compliant with California standards (the only state with formaldehyde emissions standards). The resulting scare has left industry and regulators trying to catch up to guarantee product safety and to establish a national standard for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.
The reality is that formaldehyde is a commonly used chemical in products found throughout the home and workplace and, except for extreme situations, cannot be detected by smell. The major sources for formaldehyde in a non-smoking home are more typically associated with the off-gassing from common home-improvement products – including paint, wallpaper, plywood, oriented strandboard, and pressed wood products (most prominently in medium-density fiberboard). The off-gassing from these products typically occurs in the weeks and months immediately after installation, at a rate based on many factors. Adding further complication, improved building insulation practices have created conditions that restrict the movement of air to ventilate formaldehyde vapors, which can then be trapped in porous media such as carpeting to be re-emitted later.
Exposure Risks and Assessment
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen with acute health effects that include nose and throat irritation, difficulty breathing, a burning sensation in the eyes, and headaches. For some individuals, the degree of sensitivity to exposure will be greater than for others.
Because formaldehyde can volatilize from a variety of different sources, indoor air sampling should be conducted to determine if a hazard is present. Although “do-it-yourself” indoor air formaldehyde test kits are available, the results may be suspect due to environmental conditions or the quality of the laboratory performing the analysis. If the results of indoor air sampling indicate that formaldehyde is present at unsafe concentrations, and composite flooring is suspected, core samples may be collected from the flooring. [Note: The formaldehyde emissions limit set by the California Air Resources Board is 0.05 parts per million (ppm). The limit set by the World Health Organization is 0.1 ppm.]
If a source of unsafe levels of formaldehyde is discovered, a variety of options may be available to mitigate elevated concentrations. The complete removal and replacement of new construction or renovation is costly and may not be necessary. Ventilation and temperature/humidity control may be more cost-effective methods to manage formaldehyde emissions. However, product selection prior to construction is the most effective way to limit formaldehyde emissions.
The Formaldehyde Standards for Wood Products Act
The hazards of formaldehyde emissions have been known for years. In the 1970s and 80s, efforts were made to convert from urea-containing formaldehyde products to phenol-containing formaldehyde products with lower overall formaldehyde emissions. In 2010, the Formaldehyde Standards Composite Wood Products Act was signed into federal law, in part as a reaction to the negative health effects resulting from unsafe levels of formaldehyde detected in temporary housing trailers provided by FEMA during the Hurricane Katrina response.
Political wrangling has delayed the implementation of standards; but in 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to finalize rules limiting formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products manufactured, sold, or imported into the United States. The proposed rules will require producers of composite wood products to monitor formaldehyde emissions from their products, and require evaluation by an independent third party to verify that standards are being met. The proposed standards were developed based on those established by the California Air Resources Board.
HETI: Exposure Assessment and Risk Management Services
If exposure symptoms or a noticeable chemical odor is present within a year after a remodel or renovation where composite wood products have been used, an environmental health and safety professional should be contacted. HETI is here to help – with personnel experienced in source investigation, indoor air assessment, and hazard mitigation. We can also assist by providing pre-planning guidance to establish standard operating procedures for the handling of composite wood products to minimize formaldehyde emissions once work is complete.