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Should You Be Worried About Formaldehyde?

Posted by Pam on August 28th, 2012

Formaldehyde SmellsEver opened up a new toy for your kid, or a box of assembly-required furniture, and been knocked over by the smell in the box? After romanticizing about being the first person to breathe in that air since the box left its country of origin, my attention goes to a little voice inside my head that says, “Cough cough – run! Nobody should breathe that stuff in!”

But then I shrug it off, believing that if there really were a danger, my government would put a label on the box or run public service announcements warning me of the danger of breathing in factory air from China.

Turns out we should give pause when opening that box.

A recent study followed formaldehyde release from the unpacking and assembly of self-assembly furniture. Researchers found that unpacking and setting up a 2-door wardrobe increased the formaldehyde concentration in the home in a measurable way. And the formaldehyde levels differed with the finish on the wardrobe, with the unfinished models emitting higher levels of formaldehyde than the highly-lacquered glossy models.

Formaldehyde is a toxic gas that is given off by a surprising number of items in our homes. As a constituent of many manufactured items, formaldehyde can be found in:

  • Furniture
  • Walls
  • Carpeting
  • Flooring
  • Decorations

How can you tell what types of furniture could potentially release formaldehyde gas? One of the primary uses of formaldehyde is in adhesives, so if your furniture is made out of “wood” that is something other than solid natural wood, it is likely to be emitting formaldehyde. Items like plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), chipboard, and particle board all rely on glue to hold them together, and thus each of these can be high in formaldehyde.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But my whole house is made out of those woods and I don’t smell anything!”

The reason these items don’t smell like formaldehyde forever is that there is only ever going to be so much formaldehyde that “off-gases” (or comes out of) these products. The smells that off-gas from those hideous car air fresheners demonstrate this principle. Eventually, so little chemical is being liberated from the air freshener that you can’t smell it until you hold it up close to your nose.

In the case of building materials, a lot of off-gassing occurs in the months prior to purchase. By the time much of this wood reaches our homes, it is only off-gassing at a low rate. In this case, our exposure is going to be dictated by air exchanges or air purification in our homes.

New construction is at a disadvantage when it comes to getting rid of off-gassing chemicals, because new homes tend to retain more indoor air than old drafty homes.

Ready to throw out all your furniture? Wait, it’s not all bad news. While the wardrobes did increase the formaldehyde in the house, the effect was short-lived. In some cases, the household formaldehyde concentrations returned to normal by the end of the week.

formaldehyde test kitBut even at low levels, formaldehyde can be dangerous – especially for particularly sensitive individuals. If you have any concerns, using a do-it-yourself formaldehyde test kit is an easy way to find out if your home has dangerous formaldehyde levels.

What’s the point of all this? Should you be concerned about formaldehyde or not? Here are a few takeaways:

  • Formaldehyde is found in adhesives used in fake wood products.
  • Your level of formaldehyde exposure is highest when these products are new.
  • If you have “wood” products in your home that aren’t new, you are at less of  risk. However, they could still be emitting formaldehyde at lower levels, so it is still a good idea to have your home tested.

Still have questions? Watch our video on checking for formaldehyde:

Our exposures to chemical pollutants in the world around us are complex. One of the ways to protect yourself day in and day out is to maximize the amount of clean air you breathe. This might include an air treatment device (like an air cleaner) to ensure that short-term exposures (like new furniture) don’t get a chance to affect your health.

Have you experienced a formaldehyde scare? What did you do to combat your exposure? Tell your story in the comments section below!

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