August 17, 2016 . Workplace, Manufacturing, Sustainability

Healthier Work Environments with New, Low and No Formaldehyde Added Materials

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In our previous post we explored formaldehyde over-exposure risk in the workplace. Though formaldehyde over-exposure in the workplace is rare, companies need to take precautions when a multitude of new materials (carpeting, furniture, partitioning) are being installed in active work environments. 

What to watch for:

  • Products manufactured outside the U.S. which may not adhere to strict, measurable standards

  • Laminate and particle board with unfinished edges in "out of sight" areas, typically done to reduce cost

  • Cumulative effect of rapid installation of many different new formaldehyde containing products, including furniture, carpeting, and partitioning

  • Poor ventilation and limited air flow

  • Moving employees into new work areas before materials have been given time to off-gas

Some easy steps to take:

  • Inspect and ensure ventilation and air flow systems are in optimal working condition

  • Install materials on a Friday so that initial off-gassing can occur over a weekend, or wait at least a couple days before moving employees back into workspaces

  • Use only Indoor Advantage Certified Products

  • Explore the new array of alternative materials and resin types

Conventional and Alternative Resins 

The three main types of formaldehyde resins found in commercial products today are urea, phenol, and melamine. Urea-formaldehyde (UF) is the favored resin formulation for standard interior-grade composite wood products because of its lighter, more attractive resin color and lower cost. UF resins have a slightly less stable bond than those made with phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resins, which are darker in color and more frequently used in exterior applications. The third most common formaldehyde resin, melamine formaldehyde, is a main constituent in surface laminates and plastic consumer goods because of its excellent durability.  

Regardless of formulation, the formaldehyde content of all materials has dramatically decreased since indoor air quality first surfaced as a concern in the 1970s and 80s. After realizing that excess formaldehyde held little value for customers, composite panel manufacturers have worked to reduce the “free” or unbound formaldehyde in their products. The 2009 CARB rule has reinforced these downward trends: since the rule was implemented in 2009, the composite panel industry has reported a 60% reduction in formaldehyde emissions from particleboard and a 70% reduction from MDF.  

Despite industry improvements, products containing formaldehyde continue to be “red listed” or restricted based on the consumer perceived concern with regard to the health concerns resulting from formaldehyde exposure. The following three resin alternatives are generally available throughout the furniture industry for use as a binder with particleboard and MDF and will cost the consumer an additional 30% to 35% material up-charge:

No Added Urea-Formaldehyde (NAUF)

The NAUF designation was created when the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program began to reward the avoidance of urea-formaldehyde resins in composite wood and agrifiber. Urea-based resins generally have a less stable bond than industrial or exterior grade products. For this reason, NAUF materials use phenol or melamine formaldehyde resins.   

Ultra Low-Emitting Formaldehyde (ULEF)

Composite materials labeled with an “ultra-low emitting formaldehyde” (ULEF) designation meet an exemption category set by the CARB standard which requires manufacturers to demonstrate that 90% of tested samples emit no more than 0.06 PPM for a period of six months. These products receive ULEF designation and are exempt from CARB’s third party certification requirements.  

No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) 

Composite panel manufacturers have been subject to enough pressure from consumers and government to seek alternative resin formulations that do not use formaldehyde. Materials labeled with a No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) designation use a binding agent called polymeric methyl diphenyl diisocyanate, or p-MDI. MDI has been used for many years in the manufacture of plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) but only recently has the technology been adapted for the production of particleboard and medium density fiberboard. NAF resins are exempt from CARB’s third party certification requirements.

Consumers have eagerly embraced NAF substrates as the best solution for preserving indoor air quality, and the increased popularity of these products have brought pricing into comparable range with traditional materials.  

Conclusion 

NAF (No Added Formaldehyde) materials are now more widely available though, for cost-containment sake, most furniture on the market today still contains traditional formaldehyde-added core board. As part of our commitment to workplace wellness and Practical Environmentalism ethos, Watson recently announced that beginning in August 2016 all wood products will convert to new NAF core material. 

As an additional assurance to concerned end users, most standard Watson products are Indoor Advantage™ certified by the accredited third party SCS Global Services and comply with ANSI/BIFMA X7.1/ M7.1 standards for indoor air quality.

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