What’s the deal with plywood?
Pressed wood products, such as hardwood plywood wall paneling, particleboard and fiberboard are used to make all sorts of product, such as home furnishings and toys like play kitchens and dollhouses.
The problem with plywood is that it’s almost never ethically sourced and it contains formaldehyde. In plywood formaldehyde is present because it’s a main component of glues and adhesives used to hold these “wood” products together. According to the EPA, the worst sort of plywood is medium density fiberboard (MDF), because it contains a higher resin-to-wood ratio than any other pressed wood product. Most recognize MDF as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.
Formaldehyde is linked to numerous health problems, such as watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and breathing difficulty. Research also shows that formaldehyde absolutely causes cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. In higher concentrations and via long-term exposure, formaldehyde is thought to be deadly according to some research.
Concentrations of formaldehyde are typically found to be several times greater indoors than outdoors because when you gather formaldehyde-emitting materials in a confined space they off-gas in said space, allowing formaldehyde levels to become more concentrated.
Is plywood getting safer?
On July 7, 2010, President Obama signed into law Senate Bill 1660, which established the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act (the “Act”). This Act amends the federal Toxic Substance Control Act and requires the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) to develop a new federal regulation by January 1, 2013, to implement provisions of the Act. So maybe plywood is getting safer. We’ll have to wait and see.
Is there any safer plywood now?
According to the California Air Resources Board, there are safer and less safe plywood choices. They recommend that if you buy pressed wood products, you purchase the low-emitting products possible.
- Pressed wood products made with phenol formaldehyde (PF) resin or methylene diisocyanate (MDI) resin, emit much less formaldehyde than UF products.
- Choose UF pressed wood products that are sealed with non-toxic finishes that reduce formaldehyde emissions, such as eco-friendly paints or other water-resistant coating.
- If you purchase UF pressed wood products, look for the Composite Panel Association (CPA) or Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association (HPVA) stamps. These products meet certain safer formaldehyde emission standards.
Often composite wood products pose as real wood (or try to). You can contact companies directly and ask what sort of wood they use – although I’ve been ignored by many a shady company. Sometimes you can tell by looking. If you turn a “wood” product over on it’s side or back, you can often see if it’s a real piece of wood or you may see what looks like strips of wood or wood composites glued together – that’s not real wood!
Other safer plywood tips
- Look for formaldehyde-free composite wood products such as those made with Medex or Medite.
- Finishes can help reduce exposure, but it doesn’t make sense to purchase a plywood play kitchen coated in another toxic finish. Look for natural finishes made with plant oils, tree resins, minerals or beeswax, and aim for low-VOC paints.
- If you must purchase plywood, allow it to offgas outdoors, before bringing the plywood inside.
- Keeping indoor humidity and temperatures low will help reduce the amount of formaldehyde released into the air.
- Some plants have been shown to remove or reduce indoor formaldehyde levels. See this chart for plant ideas or read How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office.
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