[This was/is going to be a post for Greenovation.tv.  But Matt has been busy with other projects and hasn’t been able to post it to the blog yet.  I’ll revise this when he does.  In the meantime, I had also planned to use this as a contribution for a Pratt & Lambert Paints blog. I’ll update this with the link when they post it.]

There was recently a little bit of discussion I took part in among a local parents group about the issue of formaldehyde in furniture. A parent was investigating new bedroom furniture for a child, and raised a question about the issue of formaldehyde in furniture and concerns about it off-gassing from some kinds of materials. In addition to looking at this issue, I have some suggestions about how to avoid furniture that has formaldehyde.

While this isn’t going to be an issue that saves you money by increasing the energy efficiency of your home, indoor air quality is, nevertheless, also a green building issue. Green building rating systems like LEED and engineering standards from organizations such as ASHRAE (some of which are incorporated by reference into green buiilding guidelines) address the issue of indoor air quality. We spend most of our time inside buildings, and the air indoors is generally far more polluted than it is outdoors, even in urban environments.

Formaldehyde is an irritant to the airway and to the eyes, and can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. It has also been classified as a known human carcinogen by the WHO. Formaldehyde has also been implicated in the infamous case of the FEMA Katrina trailers which allegedly sickened hundreds of families. This has also led to a growing public awareness of the issues surrounding formaldehyde and indoor air quality.

The message that began the discussion was from someone looking for a new child’s bed, but was concerned that most new furniture is “made of particleboard that releases toxic formaldehyde” and wanted to find other options.

First of all, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, and even raw wood (and lots of other natural materials) will release some amount of formaldehyde. Zero formaldehyde is unlikely except in laboratory conditions since there is naturally occurring formaldehyde in the atmosphere. However, you certainly don’t want excess formaldehyde in your environment, and there are things you can do to help reduce the levels of it in your home.

The binders used to make particleboard and plywood are often made with formaldehyde, and these glues can be a source that slowly releases formaldehyde into your home through off-gassing from the material. Formaldehyde glues can also be used to attach furniture parts to one another and to adhere laminates and coverings to the substrates of the furniture.

There are two broad categories of glues that use formaldehyde, and plywood, particle board and similar materials use a lot of these glues to hold the bits of wood together. One off-gasses formaldehyde (urea formaldehyde glues), but the other locks it into the glue (phenol formaldehyde glues) and is nearly inert from a formaldehyde perspective. With phenol glues, think of it like the chlorine in salt. Salt doesn’t have a chlorine smell because it is tightly bound as salt molecules NaCl. Likewise, in phenol glues, the formaldehyde is locked into the compound, so there is very little that will contribute to off-gassing. Just because an adhesive uses formaldehyde doesn’t immediately mean it’s going to be hazardous. Manufacturers do make materials that don’t off-gas significant amounts of formaldehyde.

That said, the phenol types of glue and binders are mostly used for exterior use materials, since the phenol glues are weather-resistant, and they are also more expensive. Urea types of glues are less expensive, and are used for most indoor particleboard materials that will not be exposed to weather. I have heard of manufacturers sealing the particleboard on urea-type materials, which may slow the rate of release and lower the amount of formaldehyde that is released, but I don’t know how effective that may be. Slowing the release may keep the formaldehyde level lower, but might also extend the length of time that formaldehyde is released from a source.

Greenguard is a certifying organization dealing with indoor air quality issues. While I think of them predominantly in terms of paints and coatings for indoor use, they do also have a section of certified furniture, but for now, that list is mostly school desks and baby cribs. For this particular question, there is nothing currently listed that would be suitable.

So, what options are there for furniture that won’t off-gas lots of formaldehyde and won’t be detrimental to your home’s indoor air quality? I have a few suggestions:

1. Reuse and recycle. It doesn’t have to be new. Existing goods are also a particularly green choice since it reduces waste and keeps material out of landfills. Used goods will have had a chance to off-gas a significant part of the formaldehyde from their original fabrication, and could be an inexpensive way to get something, as well.

2. Better quality materials. This will be more expensive, but furniture built with higher quality materials that don’t rely on boards using the cheaper glues. It will likely still take investigating and asking questions in order to find what you are looking for, but it should be worth it.

3. Custom construction. Custom doesn’t have to mean high-end (though it certainly can be). There are lots and lots of builders and cabinetmakers and other skilled tradespeople who could easily build a bed using the materials you want. It’s probably going to be a more expensive proposition than getting the cheapest thing available from the super-discount big-box, but you’ll end up getting something better and likely more durable. In the long-run, that might make something more affordable, if it lasts far longer. And it’s good to support local businesses, and use more local materials, instead of having something shipped across oceans.

4. Solid wood instead of composites. If the furniture is built from solid wood rather than using particleboards or plywoods, then you are greatly reducing the amount of glues in the materials. Pieces can still be glued together, so you should still check, but it’s likely less of an issue than with anything with particleboard.

5. Metal or other non-wood materials. Metal would be another possibility, of course, if you want to avoid formaldehyde altogether. Wood isn’t the only choice available, though price may be a factor.

6. Ventilation. If you do have something that is off-gassing, getting those compounds out of the living space is the next best option. As the weather is beginning to turn nice, leave windows open as much as possible to let the formaldehyde and other compounds dissipate, and keep it from building up in the indoor air.

Lastly, I don’t think you should rely on a ‘sniff test’ as a determining factor as to whether or not something is safe. You’re not a dog, and it doesn’t mean everything is okay if you can’t smell it. Your nose will only pick up formaldehyde at a concentration of about 0.5 to 1.0 parts per million. The EPA says, “In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm,” so you aren’t necessarily going to be able to smell it, though if you can, that should be a definite warning sign.

Link: US EPA on Formaldehyde [Ed note: broken link repaired]