How can formaldehyde gas in a house be a problem?

Friday, February 1, 2019

A big part of that distinctive “new house” smell that hits you when you walk into a newly constructed home, or recently remodeled one with fresh carpet and paint, is formaldehyde gas. It is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that is in a category of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), all of which vaporize at ordinary room temperature. 

   It is used extensively in making wood products such as plywood, OSB (oriented strand board), and engineered wood flooring. Formaldehyde is also part of the manufacturing process for home furnishings, carpet, and paint, and is typically released into the air (off-gassed) from these products during the first several months after manufacture.

   This is what the EPA has to say about formaldehyde:

  1. Formaldehyde exposure may potentially cause a variety of symptoms and adverse health effects, such as eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions. Long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals. Formaldehyde can affect people differently. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde at a certain level while others may not have any noticeable reaction to the same level.

  2.    Formaldehyde is just one of several gases present indoors that may cause adverse health effects and illnesses. Many other gases, as well as respiratory illnesses (e.g. colds and the flu) can cause similar symptoms to those caused by formaldehyde.

   The “CBS 60 Minutes” in March, 2015, flared concern nationally about high levels of formaldehyde in engineered wood flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators. It charged that the amount of formaldehyde gas emitted by the material exceeds safety levels set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). At the time, over 100 million square feet of Lumber Liquidators laminate flooring was installed in American homes every year, and the company  initially countered with charges that the wrong test protocol was used. They later plead guilty to charges of making false declarations on import documents about the source of the disputed flooring materials, and agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement with the Justice Department. Lumber Liquidators no longer sells the problematic laminate wood products, which were made in China.

   It’s important to understand that formaldehyde is present at low levels in even outdoor air all the time, at around 0.03 parts per million (ppm). Also, it is not just produced by industrial processing. Automobiles, cigarettes, and burning of wood or natural gas generate formaldehyde gas. 

   But reducing the formaldehyde level and eliminating formaldehyde-producing sources within your home is still a sensible thing to do. Here’s a few ways to do it: 

  • If you buy pressed-wood products, confirm that they are made with composites meeting the Ultra Low Emission Formaldehyde (ULEF) or No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) requirements.
  • Open doors and windows occasionally and use an exhaust fan to air out the house. Modern houses are tightly sealed and insulated, so a regular airing-out is a good policy.
  • Buy only solid wood furniture or composite wood furniture with sealed surfaces. If you have any newer composite wood furniture that is still emitting formaldehyde gas, remove it from your home. Because the formaldehyde off-gassing diminishes over time, storing the pieces outside of your living area for a while may solve the problem.
  • Increase ventilation of your home while doing any interior painting or use low VOC paint.

   For more information about formaldehyde, symptoms of formaldehyde exposure, and further recommendations for reducing levels in your home, click on the link below to download a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) entitled “An Update on Formaldehyde.”


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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about STRUCTURE AND ROOMS:

Why is the grout cracking and coming loose at my floor tile?

What are the building code requirements for notching and boring holes in a wall stud? 

What causes dark or light "ghost" lines on ceilings and walls?

Can you access or exit a bedroom through another bedroom?

What is the difference between a carport and a garage? 

What are simple ways to find the cause of a ceiling stain?

What is the minimum size of habitable rooms in a house according to the building code? 

Why is my garage ceiling sagging? 

How can I identify what kind of wood flooring I am looking at?

Why does my concrete floor slab sweat and get slippery?

What is the minimum ceiling height for rooms in a house? 

Why are there score line grooves in the concrete floor of the garage?

How much can I cut out of a floor joist? 

How can I tell if my floors are sloping?

Why do the floors slope in this old house? 

What are the common problems when a homeowner converts a garage to conditioned living space, such as a family room?

• How can I tell if a wall is load-bearing? Which walls can I take out? 

     Visit our STRUCTURE AND ROOMS page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles. 

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