Understanding Formaldehyde

By Brett Miller, NWFA

Formaldehyde became a household word for many Americans after some flooring material being imported into the US was reported to have formaldehyde levels more than 10 times the legal limit. Although the material in question was not wood, the report affected the entire flooring industry.

In the US, formaldehyde levels are established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), an organization that regulates and monitors volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic compound. It is present in all living things, including human beings. It also can be man-made as a result of combustion. In small amounts, formaldehyde is not harmful, but in large amounts, it can be highly toxic. In the flooring industry, formaldehyde is most commonly used as a compound in finishes, stains, and adhesives.

The US has a variety of laws designed to control VOC emissions. The most widely known, and the most restrictive, is CARB. CARB has several regulations, but the one that affects our industry is CARB Phase 2. This regulation affects composite wood products, and three wood product categories: hardwood plywood, particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF). Laminated flooring products can include one or more of these wood products categories, and therefore, must be compliant with CARB Phase 2.

CARB Phase 2 caps formaldehyde emissions at .05 parts per million (ppm). For products manufactured in the United States, this is a highly regulated process, and violations are rarely reported. Other countries, however, are not held to same regulatory standards for VOC emissions. For this reason, it is important to ensure that the products you use import, sell, and install carry the CARB Phase 2 designation.

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