Since the recent Lumber Liquidators controversy surrounding high levels of formaldehyde in Chinese-made flooring, builders and remodelers across the country have been inundated with questions about the chemical and the danger it poses to indoor air quality. A new web site from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), the Formaldehyde Resource Center, is helping to answer these concerns.

Here, BUILDER magazine talks with AIHA president-elect Daniel H. Anna, who breaks down the facts and myths about the toxic chemical and its use in homes across the country. 

What types of building products contain formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, oriented strandboard (OSB), plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials, including urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). It is also used in the manufacture of many other common products that may be used during construction activities such as household cleaners, paints, textiles, landscape and yard products, and pesticides.

Are there levels of formaldehyde that are acceptable?
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical that is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts per million (ppm), in both outdoor and indoor air.  According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission residences or offices that contain products that release formaldehyde into the air can have levels greater than 0.03 ppm.

Exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may result in headaches or irritation of the throat and eyes. In certain instances, exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may also cause respiratory issues, including asthma. People are affected differently by exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde. Often, the greatest concern is for children and the elderly. At low concentrations, some individuals may experience adverse health symptoms while others may not.

What can U.S. builders do to make sure the homes they are building don’t have unacceptable levels of formaldehyde?
Builders could help to reduce the total number of potential formaldehyde sources by selecting products with no formaldehyde content. For example, by substituting wood lumber for products that have been made using formaldehyde based glues and by selecting insulation materials that are not based on urea-formaldehyde (UF) foam those specific potential sources of formaldehyde would be eliminated.

In addition, certain standards can be used to help specify products with lower formaldehyde emission levels. When installing pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF), or hardwood plywood, use products that are stamped or labeled in compliance with California Air Resources Board Air Toxics Control Measure (CARB ATCM) criteria or meet American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. The CARB emissions standards regulate the formaldehyde emissions from these types of composite products.  The Composite Panel Association (CPA) or Hardwood, Plywood, and Veneer Association (HPVA) stamps also certify that products conform to the applicable ANSI standards.

Builders with input into the design of the homes may have additional opportunities to help integrate features that reduce the airborne concentrations of formaldehyde. The home design should include good natural and mechanical ventilation for when windows and doors are open, and properly sized HVAC systems that maintain temperature and humidity at appropriate levels when the home is tightly sealed. Lower temperature and lower humidity levels will help minimize the quantity of formaldehyde released from the building materials. Good ventilation circulation throughout the home will reduce airborne formaldehyde concentrations. 

Where can a homeowner have their flooring or other material independently tested for formaldehyde?
Samples of flooring or other materials can be sent to an accredited lab for independent testing. When selecting a lab, it is important to verify that testing will be done according to guidelines set by the American Society for Testing and Materials in standards ASTM E1333 and ASTM D6007.  CARB has published one test method for testing for formaldehyde in finished products containing composite wood cores.

If the products have already been installed and the homeowner has concerns about formaldehyde concentrations, an industrial hygienist or similarly trained professional can conduct air sampling in the home. After samples are collected, the industrial hygienist will ensure that they are sent to a qualified, accredited lab to test for the presence of formaldehyde.  Then, the industrial hygienist can provide an explanation of the lab results so that the homeowner understands what they mean for their home. There are some home screening test kits available. These kits typically contain a small formaldehyde sampler, known as a dosimeter.  If a home screening test kit is used to collect an air sample, it is essential that all instructions provided with the sampler are followed and that the samples are sent to a qualified, accredited laboratory to test for the presence of formaldehyde. 

The AIHA website has additional information for homeowners who are looking for accredited laboratories or qualified industrial hygienists.

What can be done to mitigate formaldehyde risks?
The best way to mitigate risks associated with formaldehyde is to reduce the airborne concentrations of formaldehyde in a home. This can be accomplished by limiting the products that contain formaldehyde. As mentioned, extremely low “background” concentrations of airborne formaldehyde are found in almost every home as a result of the many building materials in homes and by the products used on a daily basis. Increased temperature and humidity can increase the amount of formaldehyde released from a product or building material. Possible mitigations include installing exhaust fans or dehumidifiers in areas where moisture may be present, ensuring proper drainage and vapor barriers, and avoiding humidifiers or other moisture generators. In general, providing adequate ventilation and circulation of fresh air can help to lower concentrations of formaldehyde in the air. And, typically, the emission of formaldehyde from these products and materials decreases over time.