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California Limits Allowable Formaldehyde in Wood Panels

08/01/07

By Nadav Malin

On April 26, 2007, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved regulations that will, over time, dramatically reduce the levels of formaldehyde that can be emitted from interior panel products such as hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and particleboard. A few details remain to be worked out, but the “Airborne Toxic Control Measure to Reduce Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products” will be implemented substantially as it appears today, according to CARB spokesperson Dimitri Stanich. CARB revised these rules in early 2007 in response to input from industry and stakeholders.

California Formaldehyde Emission Limits
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This chart shows the maximum allowable formaldehyde emissions in the final CARB airborne toxic control measure, based on the ASTM E-1333-96 test protocol. The requirements for each phase take effect as noted on the chart. The effective date for the phase-two threshold of veneer-core hardwood plywood is not yet finalized.

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The chart shows the maximum allowable formaldehyde emissions in the final CARB airborne toxic control measure, based on the ASTM E-1333-96 test protocol. The requirements for each phase take effect as noted on the chart. The effective date for the phase-two threshold of veneer-core hardwood plywood is not yet finalized.
Formaldehyde was reclassified by the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) in 2004 from “probable human carcinogen” to “known human carcinogen,” elevating the level of public concern. In 1985 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) set a maximum allowable concentration of 0.3 parts per million, when tested according to ASTM E-1333-96, for products used in manufactured homes. CARB estimates that, at that level, cancer risks from formaldehyde remain unacceptably high: 23–62 childhood cancer cases per million children, and 86–231 lifetime cancer cases per million.

The new CARB rule sets thresholds for emissions of formaldehyde from various panel products that take effect in two phases between 2009 and 2012 (see chart). It is difficult to compare these limits with their counterparts in Europe and Japan due to the differences in testing protocols. The phase-one targets are designed to establish a reasonable baseline based on today’s common practice, while curtailing low-cost, high-emitting, imported products. Phase two, on the other hand, is intended to force manufacturers to shift to advanced and emerging technologies. CARB officials tout the fact that, once fully implemented, its formaldehyde emission limits will be the tightest in the world. Products sold for use in manufactured homes are exempted from these new requirements because state law cannot supersede federal rules in this area.

CARB estimates that conforming with the initial phase will add less than one dollar to the cost of a typical panel, while the second phase will raise panel costs by three to six dollars each, adding $400 to the cost of a typical 2,000-square-foot home. Compared with the June 2006 draft, the final rule’s thresholds are, on the whole, slightly less stringent and delayed in their implementation. In practical terms, these adjustments may make it possible for producers to continue using urea-formaldehyde-based (UF) adhesives, albeit in modified forms, as opposed to switching to more expensive, phenol formaldehyde alternatives, such as methyl diisocyanate (MDI) and soy-based formulations, as used by Columbia Forest Products (the only wood-products company that supported the new CARB regulations).

Chris Leffel, vice president of sales and marketing at SierraPine, isn’t so sure that it will be possible to continue using UF resins. He notes that the CARB thresholds are absolute maximum values, while European regulations are based on average values. “To make sure that you don’t have any board that does not exceed the standard, you’ve got to aim a lot lower,” he noted. Leffel is also concerned that it won’t be feasible to determine whether or not furniture and other products made with composite wood panels comply with the rules. Allowing products imported from Asia to slip through using lower-cost panels could put his customers, who will be forced to use only compliant panels, out of business. “They say that they are doing everything they can to create a level playing field,” Leffel noted, adding: “We intend to hold them to that.”

For more information:

Brent Takemoto, Ph.D.
California Air Resources Board
Sacramento, California
916-327-5615
btakemot@arb.ca.gov
www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/compwood.htm

This article was produced by BuildingGreen, Inc.- www.buildinggreen.com

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