A DIVISION OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION elevated its concerns about the health risks associated with formaldehyde. Previous evaluations by the International Agency for Research on Cancer had concluded that formaldehyde is “probably carcinogenic,” but the IARC has now dropped the word “probably” from its wording.

According to the IARC, new information from studies of persons exposed to formaldehyde has increased the overall weight of the evidence. The IARC's statement is of concern because of formaldehyde's pervasive use in home building products—from the production of resins that serve as adhesives and binders in many wood products to its use in insulation.

Charles Frazier, an associate professor of wood science and forest products at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, notes that structural plywood used in home building generally contains phenol-formaldehyde, which does not have the same long-term emissions problems associated with urea-formaldehyde. Urea-formaldehyde, however, is used in new cabinetry.

“Formaldehyde is formaldehyde, regardless of the source,” says Frazier. “The only question is, ‘will the source be a long-term emitter?'”

Frazier adds that the data analyzed in the study may predate certain product advances. “What I'm certain of is that the technologies used today are much lower emitting resins than was the case when this original data was generated,” he says.

The IARC's statement could accelerate the search for alternatives to formaldehyde. One firm, Denver-based Johns Manville, is already touting its formaldehyde-free fiber glass building insulation and has announced plans to increase its capacity. For more information, visit www.iarc.fr.