Formaldehyde is widely used by industry to manufacture building materials and numerous consumer products. It is also a by-product of combustion and certain other natural processes. Formaldehyde, by itself or in combination with other chemicals, serves a number of purposes in manufactured products. For example, it is used to add permanent-press qualities to clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and as a preservative in some paints and coating products.
In building materials, the most significant sources of formaldehyde are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. Pressed wood products include: particleboard (used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture); hardwood-veneer plywood paneling (used for decorative wall covering and used in cabinets and furniture); and medium density fiberboard (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops). Medium density fiberboard contains a higher resin-to-wood ratio than any other UF pressed wood product and is generally recognized as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.
Other pressed wood products, such as softwood plywood and flake or oriented strandboard, are produced for exterior construction use and contain the dark, or red/black-colored phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resin. Although formaldehyde is present in both types of resins, pressed woods that contain PF resin generally emit formaldehyde at considerably lower rates than those containing UF resin.
The NIBS–IEQ Products & Materials Committee is concerned about human exposure to formaldehyde, especially for individuals with multiple chemical sensitivities. The widespread use of formaldehyde, its known health effects, and the hyper-sensitivities of certain individuals create this concern. It may not be possible to make material selections that are completely free of formaldehyde, but where possible, the individual making material selections should make every effort to avoid products manufactured with formaldehyde. New soy-based adhesives are coming on to the market to replace formaldehyde resins used in many manufactured wood products. It may soon be possible to choose alternative products that are not formulated with this volatile organic compound (VOC).
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has determined that the lowest, reasonably achievable level of formaldehyde (because it is equal to ambient air concentrations) is 33 (milligrams per cubic meter) ug/m³, or 23 (parts per billion) ppb. Thus, the CHPS 01350 standard requires that a material must not emit a level of formaldehyde that results in a concentration of ½ of this level, or 16 ug/m³ (11 ppb). This limit is lower than the allowable emission level of the Green Guard standard. The NIBS–IEQ Products & Materials Committee believes that the 16 ug/m³ (11 ppb) level is a minimum requirement for formaldehyde emissions from building materials.
Following is a list of typical building materials and some considerations for selection. Note that the considerations listed below are in addition to the recommended emissions standards from CHPS 1350 and Green Guard.