My roommates and I are poor artists and have a lot of pressed wood around the house because it’s cheap and we like to build things. I recently discovered that pressed wood is treated with toxins like formaldehyde, so our plan is to phase out its use. But what do we do with our current supply? Is it so toxic that we should get rid of it immediately, or can we continue to use it? Would it contaminate the soil if we used it for a garden box? What is the best way to dispose of the stuff—can we recycle it, or should it be treated like toxic waste? Can you suggest some cheap, safer alternatives to pressed wood?
A severe eye, nose, and throat irritant, formaldehyde is a leading indoor air pollutant classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen. Kidlets and nuggets in vitro are, of course, more susceptible to its heinous hold.
Formaldehyde is offgassed as a pungent, colorless vapor by urea-formaldehyde glues used in plywood, particle board, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF). (You can also find formaldehyde lurking in drapes, carpets, and some foam insulation.) Although pressed-wood manufacturers have reduced emissions by 80 percent or more over the past 20 years, concentrations of the gas can still cause nausea, difficulties breathing, chest pains, headaches, and may trigger attacks in people with asthma. While volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde can be emitted throughout the lifetime of the product, the less-bad news is the amount being offgassed peters out with time as the product dries out.
Particle board is very difficult to recycle, but don’t despair, you can actually purchase eco-friendly formaldehyde sealants, such as AFM Safecoat’s Safe Seal, to block off any formaldehyde vapors. Varnishes such as polyurethane and nitrocellulose are also effective when you brush on a double coating. The EPA- and U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Homes project recommends applying generous coatings to all exposed edges and surfaces, including the undersides of countertops, cabinet interiors, and any drawers. A well-ventilated home will also help disperse any lingering toxic vapors.
If you’re looking for alternatives for the future, PrimeBoard is an MDF made using agricultural waste from wheat straw bound together with formaldehyde-free resins. Reportedly emission-free, PrimeBoard also exceeds industry standards for particle board. You may also want to check out Columbia Forest Products, which uses a patented soy-based adhesive for its veneer-core hardwood plywood.
Medite II is another formaldehyde-free wood-based MDF. (The company also manufactures a decorative hardwood plywood called PureBond that is LEED-compliant and contains no added formaldehyde.)
You can also look for pressed wood bonded with an adhesive called phenol formaldehyde (used in softwood plywood and oriented-strand board), which has a much lower formaldehyde emission rate, according to several sources. (Recite “PF, not UF” like a mantra ad nauseum.)
Be sure to check that your wood products are Forestry Stewardship Council-certified, which ensures that the wood was harvested from sustainably managed forests. Or try sourcing for reclaimed lumber such as those obtained from logs rescued from the bottom of rivers and lakes.
Chekhov (the cat)