When it comes to plywood manufacturing, few building materials are as popular and notorious as formaldehyde. Companies primarily use the compound to make pressed timber products such as plywood, MDF, and particle boards.
However, multiple scientific studies have shown a potential link between formaldehyde use and certain cancers. This lead the World Health Organisation to reclassify the compound as a carcinogen.
Is formaldehyde a really dangerous compound? Should you be worried about the compound found your plywood? Let’s take a closer look at the issue.
Formaldehyde is a pretty common chemical. It is present in various products inside our homes. Our wallpapers, textiles, vinyl and even toothpaste contain formaldehyde. The plywood that makes up your ceilings, walls and cabinets also contains formaldehyde, since plywood products are bonded using adhesives that contain the chemical.
What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colourless and strong-smelling volatile organic compound (VOC) found in the air. It naturally occurs in trees, plants, fruits, and vegetables.
Interestingly, human and animals also produce very small amounts of formaldehyde. We use about 1.5 ounces of the compound a day to help synthesize certain amino acids.
Normally, the formaldehyde found in nature only amounts to 0.03 ppm. This level is far too low to affect people’s health.
However, formaldehyde concentrations become higher in urban areas because of environmental factors. These include industrial pollution, vehicle exhaust, and smog.
Sadly, you can find the highest levels of formaldehyde in homes, offices, and schools. These areas often have building materials that contain the VOC.
Plywood is a common example of a formaldehyde-based product. Manufacturers use an adhesive known as phenol formaldehyde to add structural and moisture durability to plywood products. You can easily spot the adhesive as a distinct black line between layers of ply.
Common Sources of Formaldehyde
Aside from plywood, you can also find formaldehyde in other manufactured wood products such as MDF, OSB, and particle boards.
Manufacturers used these building materials to make other items such as:
- Kitchen cabinets
Other popular industrial products with formaldehyde include resins, paints, coatings, and glues and other adhesives. You can also see the compound in some commercial products such as clothes, cosmetics, leather goods, and plastic products.
Health Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure
Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring substance, but it can still cause adverse effects on human health.
Inhaling between 0.4 to 3 ppm of formaldehyde vapour can cause mild to moderate irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. This often results in watery eyes, runny noses, and itching or stinging sensations.
Long term exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde vapour can also trigger respiratory symptoms.
Meanwhile, direct contact to formaldehyde solutions can cause skin and eye irritation. Even at relatively low concentrations, the compound can still trigger an allergic skin response in certain people. Exposure to higher concentrations of formaldehyde can result in skin burns.
In some cases, people who had long term exposure to the compound went on to develop cancer.
Epidemiology studies have found a possible link between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer. Other studies also showed a potential connection between workplace formaldehyde exposure and nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer.
You can read more about the potential health effects of formaldehyde exposure here.
Why you should not worry about formaldehyde in plywood
With so many health risks associated with formaldehyde use, it’s understandable if people don’t want to get exposed to it. However, it’s important to put the compound’s dangers in the right context.
Formaldehyde is an integral part in plywood manufacturing. Since ply is one of the most popular building materials around, it would be difficult to avoid using it.
The formaldehyde emissions from plywood tend to be at their highest immediately after the manufacturing process. This is when timber sheets are bonded together using phenol formaldehyde adhesive.
However, the formaldehyde emissions do eventually subside after a few weeks. Manufacturers also apply phenolic coating to plywood to help lower emission levels even further.
By the time the product reaches your plywood supplier, their formaldehyde emissions will will have become close to negligible.
Studies have shown a possible connection between formaldehyde use and cancer development. But we have to remember that the cancer-causing effects mostly appear after exposure to high levels of the compound.
Ply products typically emit only very low levels of formaldehyde. In fact, regulators in the United States and Europe consider the emissions far too low to even have any significant impact.
What about formaldehyde in Australian plywood?
In Australia, ply manufacturers follow two standards when it comes to using formaldehyde in their products. These are:
- AS/NZS 1859.1:2004: Reconstituted wood-based panels – Specifications – Particleboard
- AS/NZS 1859.2:2004: Reconstituted wood-based panels – Specifications – Dry-processed Fiberboard
According to these standards, ply companies can only produce pressed timber products that have formaldehyde levels of 1ppm. Regulators can then categorised these products as low-formaldehyde emission items.
Many Australian ply manufacturers already follow these standards. Thanks to their efforts, most dry particleboards and dry-processed fibreboards made in the country are low-formaldehyde emission products.
EWPAA formaldehyde testing and labelling
The Engineered Wood Products Association of Australasia (EWPAA) plays a key role in the local plywood industry. The group helps make sure that all pressed timber products have low low formaldehyde emissions.
The EWPAA spearheads formaldehyde testing and labelling programs across Australia. It requires all EWPAA certified mills to regularly submit samples to its national laboratory for formaldehyde emission testing.
Each product will be labelled with the appropriate formaldehyde emission class, depending on the results.
You can find out more about the Engineered Wood Products Association of Australasia by visiting their website here.
In summary, it’s only natural to worry about the potential health effects of products that we use. Formaldehyde use in plywood isn’t as dangerous as many people might think. As long as you purchase your plywood from a reliable Australian plywood supplier you can be sure you receive quality, safe product.