Congress passes CA-based formaldehyde limits for composite wood

Tom Lent | June 24, 2010 | Newsletter

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

The US Congress has approved legislation[1] to limit allowable emissions of formaldehyde from composite wood products, specifically hardwood plywood, particleboard and medium-density fiberboard sold in the United States. The new limits in are based on the levels established for the State of California in 2007 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

This is good news for reducing the serious toll that this known carcinogen takes on human health through widespread exposures in homes, offices and schools from building materials. The legislation should serve as a strong wake up call to the industry and help increase availability of low-formaldehyde and formaldehyde-free materials for the green designer. It is, however, only one piece of the puzzle in getting formaldehyde out of our buildings.

Although the regulations list emissions standards that kick in as early as July of 2011 and 2012, the EPA has two and a half years -- until January 2013 -- to promulgate regulations to implement the standards and retailers will be allowed to "sell-through" their inventory even beyond that point. Exemptions abound, including hardboard, structural plywood, structural composite lumber, OSB, glue-lams and wood I-joists, finger-jointed lumber, wood packaging, plus some exceptions for windows, exterior and garage doors, vehicles, boats and aircraft. Other important areas of formaldehyde use in building products, such as insulation and textiles, are not addressed by the legislation.

Finally, the new federal legislation reduces formaldehyde emissions but does not eliminate them.  The California Air Resources Board says bluntly that there is no known safe level for this carcinogen and avoidance is the best approach. There is a labeling option in the federal legislation for indicating "no-added formaldehyde-base binder," but formaldehyde-based binders will still be widespread in products after this legislation goes into effect. So although this legislation will represent an important step for reducing the health impacts of formaldehyde in buildings, smart designers will continue to use Pharos to find and evaluate the increasing number of products available across categories that avoid all added formaldehyde.

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[1] S. 1660: Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act