Urea formaldehyde is a naturally occuring substance in our environment and cannot be avoided. It is, however, also added to many household products as a preservative, from clothing to furniture. Some studies have linked urea formaldehyde to certain forms of cancer in lab animals and humans, and as such, different countries allow for different exposure levels to the chemical. In the United States, the EPA notes that an acceptable indoor air quality level is 0.1ppm (parts per million). Health Canada notes that a study was undertaken in PEI and Ottawa measuring levels of formaldehyde in the home and it was found that levels vary between 3 and 81 parts per billion, much lower than what the USEPA considers an acceptable level. It also notes that the link between specific forms of cancer and formaldehyde occurs only with exposure at very high levels for prolonged periods of time. People who work in certain industries (such as wood milling, textile preparation and undertaking) are more prone to the negative risks of formaldehyde than the regular population.
It can however, contribute to very poor indoor air quality, and certainly did so during the the 1970s and 80s when it was used as foam insulation (also know as UFFI — ureaformaldehyde foam insulation). People who are sensitive to urea formaldehyde can have symptoms such as irritated eyes and nose, sore throat, asthma, migraines and/or nausea.
Urea formaldehyde is used as a resin to bind wood fibres to produce particleboard and plywoods. Most homes today are filled with particleboard products from melamine covered shelving to bookshelves to closet inserts to kitchen cupboards. One thing to keep in mind — if the particleboard is completely sealed it will emit very low levels of formaldehyde, so if you do have some melamine cabinetry, bookshelves or furniture, check to see if all sides are sealed. While regular sealants such as oil paint and polyeurathane will effectively seal exposed areas, these products also contribute to poor indoor air quality. AFM Safecoat Safe Seal provides an effective alternate sealant with very limited VOC exposure.
If you’re planning on renovating your kitchen, or having some cabinets built, there are alternatives available to using standard particleboard. The problem has always been knowing what they are and where to find them.
NuGreen is a “no ureaformaldehye added” particleboard manufactured by UniBoard out of Quebec. Not only does this product not contain any added formaldehyde, but also, the wood fibres used are 100% recycled or recovered. NuGreen is also available in white melamine.
Cost: I spoke with Adam Dardis at Commonwealth Plywood and he quoted me the following prices for Nu Green particleboard (note these prices are valid as of May 2010. Prices will vary over time):
1/2″x4′x8′ $28.16 per board for up to 10 boards. There is a discount for ordering more boards.
Other particleboard sizes: 3/4″x4′x8′, $33.28/board; 1″x4′x8′ is $44/board.
Where to buy in the GTA (for distributors outside the GTA see Uniboard’s list of distributors):
COMMONWEALTH PLYWOOD COMPANY LTD
25 Dansk Court
tel.: (416) 675-3266 or toll free 1 (800) 268-6965
fax: (416) 675-3482