LEEDing on Formaldehyde In California

Tom Lent | May 11, 2007 | Policies

On April 27, 2007 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted unanimously to adopt the nation's most stringent regulations on formaldehyde emissions from particleboard and other composite wood products. This decision, likely to improve indoor air quality across the nation, attests to the potential power of the LEED rating system to dramatically accelerate the transformation of the building materials market toward healthier materials.

The CARB has been considering limits on formaldehyde for 15 years. In 1992 the EPA designated it a probable carcinogen and the state of California named it a toxic air contaminant with no safe level of exposure. A decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer[1] to upgrade it to a known carcinogen in 2004 and growing evidence of its ability to damage DNA, reduce lung function and do other bronchial damage resulted in a staff decision to begin exploring regulations to limit emissions.

Seven years ago, the US Green Building Council's LEED rating system began awarding a credit for use of composite wood products with no added urea formaldehyde[2], setting a high standard and sending a clear signal to the market. The credit helped catalyze market demand for a range of formaldehyde-free products, undermining the standard industry arguments that healthier building materials cost too much and won't be accepted by consumers.

The CARB regulations will be phased in over several years. But if history is any guide, the market demand for healthier materials will beat these deadlines. Although the CARB's jurisdiction is limited to California, the availability of these products should accelerate the pace of change in markets across the US. There is simply no reason now to accept products with added formaldehyde in any green building, or any building for that matter, especially those whose occupants are particularly vulnerable, such as children.

For sure this isn't the end of our exposure to the dangers of formaldehyde. There are still many other products beyond composite wood products in which formaldehyde is unregulated[3], and the Board decision only limits allowable emissions; it does not mandate that no formaldehyde can be added. Manufacturers still are allowed to use formaldehyde in composite wood products with the best technology to minimize the rate at which it is released. The regulation will, however, force drastic reductions in the emissions and make it much less economically attractive to use formaldehyde. This will create a strong incentive for the development and marketing of formaldehyde free options.

As we celebrate this major advance toward healthier building materials, let's not lose sight of a critical fact. The LEED formaldehyde-free credit was never diluted under pressure of an industry assault similar to the one that now threatens the equally successful LEED credit for FSC certified wood, or which killed a proposed LEED credit for PVC elimination. This is significant because the market's favorable response to LEED's formaldehyde free credit turned the tables in California. Industry trade associations vigorously opposed the CARB regulation, belittling the science and predicting economic disaster. Reinforced by the LEED-inspired market support for their products, however, one composite wood manufacturer and several cabinet makers bucked their trade associations and joined HBN in a campaign with health care professionals and organizations, California cities and ordinary citizens to tip the balance, reinforcing the CARB to pass a strong regulation. Strong clear LEED standards transform markets and protect health far beyond the green building footprint.


For more info on formaldehyde and the regulations, including links to the Air Resources Board website for the complete final regulations and other documents, visit the HBN site at: http://www.healthybuilding.net/formaldehyde


[1] International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs on Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks for Humans - Formaldehyde http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Meetings/88-formaldehyde.pdf

[2] US Green Building System, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for New Construction, Indoor Environmental Quality Credit 4.4 http://www.usgbc.org/LEED

[3] Formaldehyde is also used in fabric treatments, glues, fiberglass insulation, paints and other coatings.