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Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk in Office Environment

What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is wildly used in building materials, household and office products.  Most formaldehyde produced in North America is for the manufacture of resins, such as urea-formaldehyde, used to make the adhesives for pressed wood products, such as particleboard, furniture, paneling, cabinets, and other products.  Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is produced in small amounts by most living organisms, including humans.

How do people get exposed to formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is normally present in both indoor and outdoor air at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air.  Materials containing formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas or vapor into the air.  One of the major sources of exposure is from inhalation of formaldehyde emitted from composite wood products containing urea-formaldehyde resins.  In office environment, formaldehyde exposure occurs primarily by inhaling formaldehyde gas or vapor emitted from office furniture.

What are the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure?

When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm, some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no reaction to the same level of exposure.

Can formaldehyde cause cancer?

Although the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure are well known, less is known about its potential long-term health effects. In 1980, laboratory studies showed that exposure to formaldehyde could cause nasal cancer in rats. This finding raised the question of whether formaldehyde exposure could also cause cancer in humans. In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure (1). Since that time, some studies of humans have suggested that formaldehyde exposure is associated with certain types of cancer.  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.  In 2011, the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services, named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.

What has the furniture industry done to reduce formaldehyde in composite wood products?

The acceptable levels of formaldehyde emission from wood panel products have been continuously reduced over the last decades.  The driving forces have been the increased public awareness and the consumer demand for non-hazardous products as well as the corresponding government regulations.  The recent re-classification of formaldehyde by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as "carcinogenic to humans", has triggered further concern and reactions by worker and consumer associations, "green" organisatioins, regulatory authorities and the industry itself.

Today, furniture manufactured in North America generally conform to the American National Standard for Particleboard (ANSI A208.1), which is the North American industry voluntary standard, for formaldehyde emission levels (0.30 ppm for particleboards).  Furniture manufactured in Europe conforms to the the European E1 standard (0.14 ppm for particleboards).  And furniture manufactured in Asia (mostly from China, Malaysia, etc) and imported to North America generally conform to E2 standard (0.38 ppm for particleboards) or below.

On April 26, 2007, California Air Resources Board (CARB or ARB) approved an airborne toxic control measure (ATCM) to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products including hardwood plywood, particleboard, medium density fiberboard, thin medium density fiberboard, and also furniture and other finished products made with composite wood products.  The CARB rule applies to any Composite Wood Panels and products sold and used in indoor applications
within the State of California.  But it is becoming the de-facto standard for North America and is recognized around the world.

The CARB rule is being implemented in two phases.  For finish goods fabricators, CARB Phase 1 implementation start date is July 1, 2010 and CARB Phase 2 start date is July, 2013.  For particleboards, which most office furniture manufacturers use, CARB Phase 1 requires formaldehyde emission level limit to be 0.18 ppm and CARB Phase 2 to be 0.09 ppm.

Due to the number of different emission standards adopted by various regions, states, and countries, we have compiles an easy to read Comparision of International Composite Board Emission Standards.  Please click here to see the comparison table.

 

What has CWC done to reduce formaldehyde?

 

We have long recognize the importance of workplace health and safety regarding long term exposure to formaldehyde.  Since 1995, long before the approval of California's Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM), we have been using E1 standard melamine boards for our our stocking program products.  Now we are going one step further.  We are implementing CARB Phase 2 on all our domestically made product lines. 

Formaldehyde emission standards for CWC products are as follow:

Stocking Program (Symphony and Discovery Series): E1 emission standard

Custom Products (Latitude, Pioneer, Harrison and Momentum Series): CARB Phase 2 emission standard

Fabric tackboards: Formaldehyde free 

How can you reduce exposure to formaldehyde in your office environment?

Use lower-emitting composite wood products, such as those that are labeled CARB (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant.  Before purchasing composite wood furniture, buyers should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products. Formaldehyde levels in office can also be reduced by ensuring adequate ventilation, moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity levels through the use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

Where can you find more information about formaldehyde?

The following organizations can provide additional resources that readers may find helpful:

 

Health Canada offers a variety of information regarding formaldehyde and its health effects.  Health Canada can be contacted at:

Website: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

The EPA offers information about the use of formaldehyde in building materials and household products. The EPA can be contacted at:

 

Address: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Radiation and Indoor Air
Indoor Environments Division
Mail Code 6609J
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20460
Telephone: 202–554–1404 (EPA Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA) Assistance Line)
Web site: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formalde.html

 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has information about household products that contain formaldehyde. CPSC can be contacted at:

Address: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
Telephone: 1–800–638–2772 (1–800–638–CPSC)
TTY: 301–595–7054
Web site: http://www.cpsc.gov

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains information about cosmetics and drugs that contain formaldehyde. FDA can be contacted at:

Address: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993–0002
Telephone: 1–888–463–6332 (1–888–INFO–FDA)
Web site: http://www.fda.gov

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has information about formaldehyde exposure levels in mobile homes and trailers supplied by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA can be contacted at:

Address: Federal Emergency Management Agency
Post Office Box 10055
Hyattsville, MD 20782–7055
Telephone: 1–800–621–3362 (1–800–621–FEMA)
Web site: http://www.fema.gov

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has information about occupational exposure limits for formaldehyde. OSHA can be contacted at:

Address: U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
200 Constitution Avenue
Washington, DC 20210
Telephone: 1–800–321–6742 (1–800–321–OSHA)
Web site: http://www.osha.gov

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services that was created to coordinate toxicology testing programs within the federal government; to develop and validate improved testing methods; and to provide information about potentially toxic chemicals to health, regulatory, and research agencies, scientific and medical communities, and the public. NTP is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of NIH. NTP can be contacted at:

Address: National Toxicology Program
111 TW Alexander Drive
Building 101
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Telephone: 919–541–0530
Web site: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov