Fighting formaldehyde exposure dangers


Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is sponsoring a bill to establish national health standards for formaldehyde in composite wood. Formaldehyde is a pickle-smelling, water-soluble gas used in disinfectants, solvents, preservatives, and adhesives. It’s found in products such as particle board, plywood, and other wood products, and is also produced when burning natural gas, wood, gasoline or tobacco. 

Formaldehyde pollution came into the limelight in the aftermath of Katrina, when tens of thousands of FEMA trailers provided to displaced families were discovered to be emitting up to 400 times the legal limits of formaldehyde. Following pressure from the Sierra Club the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ordered FEMA to test the trailers, and eventually families were located to different homes.

In acute exposure to formaldehyde, an individual can suffer eye, nose and throat irritation, coughing, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Chronic exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer, according to Kari Palmer, an Environmental Research Scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Toxic Drywall

Drywall imported from China has been blamed for major problems in homes in the southern United States, as reported by NPR on October 27, 2009:

“Along the Gulf Coast and across the country, it’s being called a “silent hurricane.” Between 2004 and 2007, an estimated 100,000 homes in more than 20 states were built with toxic drywall imported from China.

“Emissions from the drywall corrode plumbing and electrical systems. Homeowners also blame them for headaches and respiratory ailments

Palmer said that formaldehyde exposure is a problem in Minnesota. “It’s been consistently over the benchmark” of guidance levels, she said. (See Air Quality in Minnesota: Emerging Trends, 2009 Report to the Legislature, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.) In addition, there has been some debate about what the risk levels should be set at. Palmer said that some studies indicate that the numbers shouldn’t be set as low as they currently are.

FEMA trailers were also distributed to families in Southeastern Minnesota after last year’s flood, but testing conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health found, in a very small sampling of homes, that formaldehyde levels were below acute health risk value and occupational standards.

Following the FEMA fiasco, the state of California’s Energy Commission conducted its own study formaldehyde pollution. In the study, 98% of California homes had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation, while 59 percent exceeded guidelines for acute irritation. California now requires testing of wood products.

Because of California’s initiative, testing has become industry standard for U.S. made wood products. However, imported wood, from China and other places, is not tested. The bill Klobuchar hopes to pass would require testing of all wood products.

The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act would establish national emission standards that would match those recently adopted by California, which apply to the sale of new particleboard, medium-density fiberboard and hardwood plywood, as well as products containing these materials.

Klobuchar’s bill has the backing of Minnesota wood industries, which currently voluntarily test their wood products and welcome a level playing field by making foreign imports submit to testing as well. Under the proposed legislation, wood products sold in the U.S. would have to meet a formaldehyde emission standards of about 0.09 parts per million by Jan. 1, 2012 – making the regulations the toughest in the world.

The bill also has support from the Environmental and Health groups. Kathleen Norlien, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health, said she supports testing, but she also said that formaldehyde has been a problem in Minnesota for quite some time. “If you read way back,” she said. “In the late 1980s the issues were the same, the levels were comparable.”

Norlien said that part of the problem is a lack of ventilation in newer buildings. “We’re building these air tight green buildings,” Norlien said, “but ventilation is very important. It’s important that you get air exchange.” She said that she recommends to people who are buying new furniture to buy the floor model, or if not, to open the windows at first to let the toxins dissipate.