Dear EarthTalk: I recently read about the toxic dangers of particle board. I still am using the same laminate on particle board bedroom furniture that I bought new 30 years ago. Do you think it's still harmful to my health after all this time, and is there any way to make it less unhealthy?-- Jane Woodard, via e-mail
Sadly, much of the furniture we enjoy every day is "off-gassing" toxins into the air, especially if it's made out of particle board, which traditionally relies on formaldehyde--a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical and known respiratory irritant and carcinogen--to bond the wood chips and other filler together. If you've had the furniture for many years, the good news is that most or all of the formaldehyde fumes have long off-gassed out. Of course, the bad news is that you've likely been breathing it in for years.
"New particleboard presents the biggest health concern, making installation of new materials the most dangerous," reports DoItYourself.com. "As the material ages, any formaldehyde gas emissions are reduced, but cutting it can release toxic dust into the air."
Formaldehyde isn't something to mess with. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), its exposure can make you sick, with symptoms including sore throat, cough, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds. And it's been linked to an increased risk of allergies and asthma in children.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) adds that "chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium."
Furthermore, the American Cancer Society reports that exposure to formaldehyde--classified by the federal government as a "known human carcinogen" since 2011--has caused cancer in laboratory test animals, and that humans exposed to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings are at greater risk for cancers of the nose and throat, among others.
"Scientific research has not yet shown that a certain level of formaldehyde exposure causes cancer," reports CDC. "However, the higher the level and the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of getting cancer." CDC researchers also worry that exposure to formaldehyde "might increase the chance of getting cancer even at levels too low to cause symptoms."
One precaution is to apply sealant designed to lock in potentially harmful fumes (AFM Safecoat's Safe Seal is one). Or to just make the problem go away, maybe it's time for new, greener furniture anyway. Avoid the formaldehyde trap and look for products made out of solid wood, no resin required.
Keep an eye out for products made with sustainable alternatives to particle board, like Uniboard's woodchip-based NU Green Zero, Environ's newsprint and soy waste Biocomposite, and Pfleiderer's renewable wheat straw PrimeBoard. These greener choices are bound with a polyurethane base free of formaldehyde and are popping up increasingly in the Targets and Walmarts of the world for those willing to read labels and ask questions in the quest to find the greenest versions of what's available.