If you’ve paid any attention to the media as of late, you’ve likely come across a story or two about the swift downfall of Lumber Liquidators for its resale of formaldehyde laden laminate flooring from China. Manufactured with formaldehyde based adhesives and sold en masse by Lumber Liquidators to unsuspecting American buyers, Chinese laminate poses serious health risks that range from respiratory issues to cancer. So, when 60 Minutes shed light on the issue earlier this year, consumers naturally pricked up their ears.
But this is not the first time formaldehyde has made headlines. Back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands, FEMA provided temporary trailers built from formaldehyde-emitting materials like particleboard. When residents began complaining of respiratory issues and nosebleeds, formaldehyde tests were conducted and showed that some 83% of the trailers had levels above the limit recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And believe it or not, some still live in those trailers to this day.
In truth, formaldehyde occurs naturally in lots of things–plants, animals, even humans–and is usually present in the air at very low levels. The risk lies mainly in overexposure to the chemical, which can occur in homes or offices where composite wood products and other sources of formaldehyde are present.
Now that formaldehyde concerns are back in the spotlight, there’s no doubt that you’ll have questions about your own level of exposure, especially if you work with wood regularly. Here, we’ll take a look at three of the most pressing questions:
- What are the main sources of exposure?
When it comes to woodworking and projects of the DIY variety, working with composite wood products like plywood, particle board, and decorative paneling may be cause for concern. These contain formaldehyde emitting adhesives that raise indoor formaldehyde levels.
Many wood floor finishes, including top coats and base coats, can also emit high levels of formaldehyde upon initial application, so caution should be taken when exposed to these in large amounts. High level emissions typically decrease within 24 hours.
- What are the health risks?
Exposure to formaldehyde affects everyone differently. While some don’t experience a reaction to the inhalation of formaldehyde, others are more sensitive and symptoms can vary across the spectrum. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic respiratory conditions are especially sensitive to high formaldehyde levels. For many, allergy-like symptoms such as watery eyes, blocked airways, sore throats, and skin rashes are tell-tale signs of overexposure.
Overexposure to formaldehyde can also result in more serious issues like neurotoxicity and cancer. Neurotoxicity is difficult to diagnose as many of its symptoms double as other conditions. For instance, depression, impaired judgment, and faltering memory are all symptoms that can be associated with neurotoxicity. But because it has been historically difficult to distinguish these symptoms from the cause, many individuals go undiagnosed and untreated for neurotoxicity.
Additionally, the National Science Academies recently found sufficient evidence that formaldehyde is a key player in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia.
- What’s the best way to reduce the potential for overexposure?
Since products without formaldehyde can be hard to come by, it’s a good idea to investigate low-emitting alternatives. Many wood products are made with adhesives, which are typically labeled as urea formaldehyde resin or phenol formaldehyde resin. Phenol formaldehyde resin emits much less formaldehyde than urea formaldehyde, so simply choosing a product that’s been manufactured with a phenol based adhesive will reduce your level of exposure. Formaldehyde free products like solid wood and hardboard are also healthier alternatives.
It may also be beneficial to keep your home or workshop at a controlled temperature since rises in heat and humidity can increase formaldehyde levels.
If you’re concerned about formaldehyde exposure, testing kits are available for at-home use. While these kits have neither been standardized nor tested for accuracy, they can provide a general idea of how a home, office, or workshop measures up. A reading between 100 ppb (parts per billion) and 1000 ppb will put you at a very high risk for exposure. Levels between 10 ppb and 100 ppb are much safer but, ideally, you’ll want a reading that falls below 10 ppb.