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and how do I avoid using it in my home?

It’s often difficult to spot formaldehyde as it is a colorless, although pungent-smelling gas. It’s a hidden ingredient widely used in the manufacture of countless building products. Trickier still, it’s also a by-product of natural processes such as combustion and so in combination can increase concentration levels both indoors and out.

Adhesives, which contain urea-formaldehyde resins, are most often the culprit and are typically found in pressed wood products including particleboard, plywood paneling and medium density fiberboard (MDF). These products are mass-produced into cabinetry, countertops, shelving, furniture and sub flooring. You got it – materials pretty much found in every home!

Formaldehyde, alone or when mixed with other chemicals, is considered to be one of the most subtle but hazardous in our homes. It continues to be released for years after these products have been installed and – a lesser known fact – can be absorbed into soft goods, such as draperies, upholstery, carpet and pillows (which are referred to as “sinks”), continuing to reemit toxic VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) at a later time, thereby prolonging their exposure.

Whether formaldehyde concentration levels are below advised standards in one item is probably not the point, they can fluctuate. Humidity or high temperatures can cause increased rates of release, especially when products are new. And when you combine multiple items…well you can do the math!

In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded formaldehyde from a probably carcinogen to a known one after evidence was shown that formaldehyde caused nasopharyngeal cancer.

The Healthy House Institute has some helpful guidelines; we’ve noted theirs and added others below as steps to reduce exposure. Consider these as you specify products for your clients:

• Ask about the formaldehyde content of pressed wood products, including building materials, cabinetry and furniture before you purchase them.

• Use formaldehyde-free wood products whenever you can. They’re available but can be more expensive. The most widely used completely formaldehyde-free alternative resins are MDI (methylene diphenyl isocyanate) and PVA (polyvinyl acetate).

• Consider using alternatives to pressed wood products. Some currently available: Columbia Forest Products – soy-based resin hardwood plywood panels Homasote – recycled paper panel boards Viroc – wood fiber Portland cement panels. (Source: www.buildinggreen.com)

• If you must use pressed wood products, use “exterior-grade” products as they have lower-emitting phenol resins, not urea resins.

• Increase and maintain good ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home.

• If you experience adverse reactions to formaldehyde, you may want to avoid the use of pressed wood products and other formaldehyde-emitting goods.

• Some studies suggest that coating pressed wood products with polyurethane may reduce formaldehyde emissions for some period of time. To be effective, the coating must cover all surfaces and edges and remain intact. Increase ventilation and carefully follow the manufacturer instructions while applying these coatings and avoid buying polyurethane that contains formaldehyde (as it will obviously emit the chemical after application).

• Try to maintain moderate temperature and humidity levels indoors. The rate at which formaldehyde is released is accelerated by heat and may also depend somewhat on the humidity level. Therefore, the use of dehumidifiers and air conditioning to control humidity and to maintain a moderate temperature can help reduce formaldehyde emissions.

• For further information on formaldehyde and consumer products, call the EPA Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) assistance line: (202) 554-1404.

— Debbie Hindman

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