How Can I Find Formaldehyde-Free Furniture?

 by Betsy Escandon, Eco-Novice: Going Green Gradually

Lately I was in the market for a wood bed frame and wood bookcases. I wanted them to be made of real wood, as in real solid wood not particle board or composite wood or pressed wood or plywood or any kind of wood that is engineered or manufactured with glue.

I wanted real wood furniture for two reasons:

1. My composite wood furniture has not fared so well, especially after several moves. My bookcases have bowed shelves and chipped edges everywhere. I think they look kind of crummy. Real wood is stronger and more durable than engineered wood, and, unlike composite wood, can actually be repaired in many cases.

2. The glue used to manufacture composite wood products almost always contains a significant amount of formaldehyde, which off-gasses and is a known carcinogen also associated with respiratory problems.

According to the EPA:

In homes, 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 made for indoor use include: particleboard (used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture); hardwood 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.

According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB):

One of the major sources of exposure (to formaldehyde) is from inhalation of formaldehyde emitted from composite wood products containing urea-formaldehyde resins. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified formaldehyde from "probably carcinogenic to humans" to "carcinogenic to humans" in 2004, based on the increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Formaldehyde was also designated as a toxic air contaminant (TAC) in California in 1992 with no safe level of exposure.(emphasis mine)

In fact, a few years ago a report by Environment California Research and Policy Center found that "baby nursery cribs, changing tables, and dressers can emit formaldehyde at levels linked with increased risk of childhood allergies and asthma." I especially do not want furniture that is off-gassing carcinogens in my family’s bedrooms, where we spend a significant portion of our lives.

However, the search for real wood furniture, particularly affordable real wood furniture, was surprisingly difficult and frustrating. For starters, it seems that no one actually knows what is or is not real wood anymore. One reason it can be difficult to tell if a piece of furniture is real wood is that composite wood products now often use real hardwood veneers. This means that a very thin slice of real hardwood (often with a visible wood grain) is glued along all the exposed surfaces of the composite wood so that the product appears from the outside to be real wood. Only a very close inspection for the tell-tale seams (where the veneer is glued onto the surface of the composite wood product), or a chip in the product exposing the composite interior (real wood dents but does not chip), give the imposter away.

In attempting to buy a used real wood shelf off of Craig’s List, I found that few sellers actually knew whether their shelf was real wood or not. I drove to several places only to point out to the owner that their wood shelf was actually composite wood with a hardwood veneer. So far, I have only replaced one of my composite wood bookshelves. I have given up the search for a while, because it was just too exasperating to drive to a place and find out the shelf wasn’t even real wood (despite email and phone call assurances to the contrary).

In attempting to purchase an affordable new bed frame made of real wood, I found that most employees don’t know what their stores’ products are made of. More than once I would call two stores, both distributors for the exact same wood bed frame, and receive two different answers about the bed frame’s composition. Example: store #1: "bed X is solid wood because we would never sell a composite wood product here"; store #2: "bed X is composite wood with hardwood veneers." Often I was told a bed was all real wood, and then when I asked specifically about the slats, the employee conceded that the slats were in fact plywood. And I was only calling local furniture stores that touted themselves as "green" or "natural." This ruined my confidence in knowing what a bed frame was actually made of without first driving to the store and looking at the frame for myself. I did end up with a hardwood bed frame (including hardwood slats), but it was a major hassle that involved Sherlock Holmes-level investigative skills.

What’s a conscious consumer to do?

  • Try to buy real wood whenever possible. Ask a lot of questions. Inspect the product for yourself.
  • Make your own wood products if you can. I wish I had the skills to make a bookshelf from wood purchased at Home Depot. I don’t.
  • Currently, there are few alternatives to formaldehyde-resin composite woods. One alternative is the plywood made by Columbia Forest Products which uses a formaldehyde-free soy-based adhesive called PureBond.
  • If you already own composite wood products more than a year old, know that they have probably done most of their off-gassing already.
  • If you buy composite wood products, look for a sticker or label that indicates compliance with new California formaldehyde regulations (for example: CARB or ACTM phase 1 compliant). These regulations, known as the Airborne Toxic Control Measure or ACTM, have not yet gone into full effect, but many large manufacturers are already trying to comply with them. According to the person I spoke with at California’s Air Resources Board (CARB, a part of the California EPA), products compliant with Phase 1 of the regulation have significantly lower levels of formaldehyde emissions than earlier composite wood products. Phase 2 compliant products have even lower levels.
  • Avoid medium density fiberboard (MDF), which is the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.
  • If you buy composite wood products, let them off-gas outside for several days or weeks before bringing them indoors, particularly if they are headed for a children’s bedroom. Also note that higher temperatures and higher humidity accelerate formaldehyde emissions (the EPA recommends using dehumidifiers and air conditioning to maintain moderate temperatures and humidity levels in order to reduce formaldehyde exposure).
  • Ventilate rooms thoroughly after bringing new furniture inside. Open windows daily to improve indoor air quality.

Additional Resources

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The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of Healthy Child Healthy World.

Photo courtesy Mirage Floors / CC BY 2.0