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A Sane Home in a Plywood and Particleboard World

September 10, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

The French have a word, sain, which literally means “sane,” but also “healthy” and “at-home” in its chosen place. Not everyone can design their own eco-home from the ground up, but we can take steps, when renovating our houses or apartments, to make our homes more sane. The following alternatives to potentially toxic or polluting building materials — plywood, particleboard and pressure-treated wood — will allow for detoxifying your living space at your own pace.

Plywood & Particleboard
While new building materials are generally lighter and more resource efficient, relying less on solid timber than in the old days, many are manufactured with formaldehyde-based glues. The EPA has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. Moreover, it can off-gas from the boards into the air, silently polluting your home’s air for years (the off-gassing rate is especially intense in new materials, and in hot, humid weather). Long-term inhalation of formaldehyde vapors can cause fatigue, respiratory irritation, impaired lung function and allergic skin reactions.

  • Conventional plywood is made of thin veneers of wood that are bonded together with formaldehyde resins.
  • The majority of hardwood plywood, used indoors for cabinetry and paneling, is composed of a core layer faced with higher quality woods using urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue.
  • Softwood plywood is used for exterior and structural applications (walls, floors, roofs), and its adhesive consists of phenol formaldehyde (PF) resin. PF, a more expensive, water-resistant glue, off-gasses at a considerably slower rate than UF glues. “So, we tend to use the worst products indoors, where they can do the most harm,” says John Bower of the Healthy House Institute.
  • Particleboard, used primarily indoors for furniture and cabinets, is made from wood chips and other plant fibers bonded with formaldehyde-based resins.

Fortunately, a new generation of products are being created with little or no formaldehyde, giving you the potential to replace plywood, particleboard, plastics and other synthetic materials in cabinets and furniture throughout your house.

  • Choose certified-sustainable hardwood cabinets and furniture utilizing traditional joinery and stainless steel drawer bottoms, salvaged wood, UF-free fiberboard or baked-enamel metal, which emit less chemical vapor into the air. Or, reject permanent cabinetry altogether, and use freestanding hardwood tables, shelves and hooks.
  • Choose formaldehyde-free medium density fiberboard (MDF) in place of plywood for outdoor areas. Fiberboard can be made from recycled wood, paper or plant fiber waste, which is compressed and molded into boards without adhesives.
  • Look for an “exterior glue” stamp on regular plywood, which means it contains PF instead of UF glues.
  • If particleboard can’t be avoided, finish with a low-toxicity sealant (latex paint won’t seal in vapors).
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