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formaldehyde hotspots

Formaldehyde Hotspots in the Home

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jun 4, 2020

Most homes today contain detectable levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. The American Cancer Society reports that formaldehyde has been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Other studies show that prolonged exposure to formaldehyde in the workplace environments can cause nasopharynx cancer. At the same time, medical professionals are at a higher risk of leukemia due to their high exposure to the chemical.

What is Formaldehyde?

We might remember formaldehyde from our high school biology class when we dissected a frog. However, the most common use of this strong-smelling, colorless gas is in the construction industry. One of the unique aspects of this chemical is that it breaks down quickly into gas form at room temperature (otherwise know as off-gassing). When this occurs, the chemical is released into the air in your home. Formaldehyde is a part of the larger group of chemicals known as VOCs or volatile organic compounds. 

The "new-home" smell is most likely a collection of different VOCs, including formaldehyde. Formaldehyde off-gases rather quickly. So, newer homes or remodeled homes will most likely contain higher levels of this potential carcinogen. 

Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation Toronto Star Photo Archive Digital Archives Ontario
Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation. Photo Credit: Toronto Star Photo Archive via Digital Archives Ontario

Why is Formaldehyde in Homes?

In the 1970s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was a material used to insulate many homes. With the discovery of formaldehyde's health dangers, this potentially dangerous insulation alternative was eventually phased out of new home construction. 

Today, formaldehyde can be found mostly in pressed wood products containing high levels of adhesives and glues. Since small formaldehyde levels exist naturally in the air, many people in the construction industry have traditionally turned a blind eye to the use of this chemical.

What Happens if You Breathe in Formaldehyde?

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde can lead to eye, nose, throat irritation, dizziness, nausea, and even developing certain types of cancer. Learning to identify where formaldehyde is present in your home to opt for toxin-free alternatives is an important part of opting for a healthier home.

Wooden Office Furniture

Where Is Formaldehyde Found In Homes?

One of the most common building materials in modern-day homes is plywood, particleboard, and their derivatives. All of these wood products are usually much cheaper than solid wood pieces. However, they use large amounts of adhesive to bind the layers of "plies" of wood together. Plywood is mainly used as sheathing for both the interior and exterior walls along with the roof. Particleboard and MDF are commonly in other furniture such as desks, kitchen cabinets, beds, bookshelves, etc.

While the formaldehyde levels will reduce over time as it off-gasses and eventually vents out of your home, the high concentrations of this chemical at the outset can be dangerous to your health. That "new furniture" smell is most likely tainted with high levels of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is found in several different types of paints applied to wood products periodically during their lifetime.

High levels of formaldehyde are present in different types of drywall. An EPA study in California found that gypsum wallboard can absorb formaldehyde in the air. Then, it subsequently emits that formaldehyde into the air in your home. In addition, formaldehyde is often incorporated into the plasticizers used to make the gypsum slurry that makes up the drywall base. Formaldehyde is even present in clothes. It improves colorfastness and stain resistance and is used for wrinkle resistance in clothing labeled "no-iron."

Current Legislation and Standards

A series of standards on formaldehyde arose in the 2010s. The first was the 2010 Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, which established emission standards for formaldehyde from composite wood products. It was followed, in 2013, by more specific EPA guidelines. These guidelines were called the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, or Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Targeted were hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard sold, supplied, offered for sale, or manufactured (including imported) in the United States. There is mention of:

  • "No-added formaldehyde resins."
  • "Ultra low-emitting formaldehyde resins."
  • Testing requirements for all products.
  • More specific product labeling.

The most recent iteration of the legislation states the following: 

"After March 22, 2019, composite wood products must be labeled as TSCA Title VI compliant. These products include hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard, as well as household and other finished goods containing these products."

In other words, the higher standard is now TSCA Title VI compliant. The allowed parts per million of formaldehyde emitted is the same for the CARB ATCM Phase II and TSCA Title VI (see chart below). However, TSCA Title VI compliance includes more rigorous definitions, record-keeping, testing, and test result disclosure by wood product manufacturers. These are all critical steps to keep the public safe from high levels of this dangerous chemical.

Rise Formaldehyde Comparison Chart
Rise Formaldehyde Regulations Summary

Finding Manufactured Wood Products With TSCA Title VI Compliance

Here, from American Home Furnishings Alliance, is an example of the label you should see on TSCA Title VI compliant manufactured wood:

AHFA TSCA Title VI Compliant Manufactured Wood Example Label
TSCA Title VI Compliant Manufactured Wood Example Label. Photo Credit: AHFA

Now, let's look at some composite wood manufacturers that have publicized the fact that they do not use any added formaldehyde.

PureBond Hardwood Plywood
PureBond Hardwood Plywood. Photo Credit: Columbia Forest Products


PureBond, Columbia Forest Products' hardwood plywood, is advertised on its website as "formaldehyde-free." PureBond says their products are "formaldehyde-free." Their hardwood plywood panels are made with no added formaldehyde components or added formaldehyde adhesives. They state that they implemented this proactively and are in full compliance with the TSCA Title VI regulation.

Timber Products Hardwood Plywood
Timber Products Hardwood Plywood. Photo Credit: Timber Products

Timber Products Company

Timber Products Company stated that as of June 1, 2018, all of their composite wood products must be compliant with the EPA's Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) Title VI regulation. Their compliance statement and certification are included in all of their invoices and order acknowledgments. The page delineates three Timber Products Company hardwood plywood manufacturing facilities and two particleboard manufacturing facilities. These are identified as being "certified for TSCA Title VI compliance."

How to Avoid Formaldehyde in the Home

The best way to avoid formaldehyde in your home is by researching any product before purchasing it. Find building supplies advertised as low or no-VOC. When purchasing new wooden materials that you think might contain formaldehyde, leave the products outside in a well-ventilated area for a week or two while they off-gas. You can ask the manufacturer to hold the product in their warehouse for several weeks before delivery. Some cabinetry manufacturers will even let you specify formaldehyde-free.  

Most importantly, check for TSCA Title VI compliance. It is the highest standard, higher than CARB, and meant to keep consumers safe from formaldehyde's toxic effects—now and into the future.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-10-25T12:51:20+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.