Is furniture making you sick?

By Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
Our furniture may be sending toxins into the air.
Our furniture may be sending toxins into the air.
Dear EarthTalk: I recently read about the toxic dangers of particle board. I am using the same laminate on particle board bedroom furniture that I bought new 30 years ago. Do you think it’s still harmful to my health after all this time, and is there any way to make it less unhealthy?

— Jane Woodard, via e-mail
     Sadly, much of the furniture we enjoy every day is “off-gassing” toxins into the air, especially if it’s made out of particle board, which traditionally relies on formaldehyde—a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical and known respiratory irritant and carcinogen—to bond the wood chips and other filler together. If you’ve had the furniture for many years, the good news is that most or all of the formaldehyde fumes have long off-gassed out. Of course, the bad news is that you’ve likely been breathing it in for years.
    “New particleboard presents the biggest health concern, making installation of new materials the most dangerous,” reports “As the material ages, any formaldehyde gas emissions are reduced, but cutting it can release toxic dust into the air.”
     Formaldehyde isn’t something to mess with. Exposure can make you sick, with symptoms including sore throat, cough, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Formaldehyde also has been linked to an increased risk of allergies and asthma in children.
    The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry adds that “chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium.”
     The American Cancer Society reports that exposure to formaldehyde—classified by the federal government as a “known human carcinogen” since 2011—has caused cancer in laboratory test animals. Humans exposed to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings are at greater risk for cancers of the nose and throat, among others.
     “Scientific research has not yet shown that a certain level of formaldehyde exposure causes cancer,” the CDC reports. “However, the higher the level and the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of getting cancer.” CDC researchers also worry that exposure to formaldehyde “might increase the chance of getting cancer even at levels too low to cause symptoms.”
     One precaution is to apply sealant designed to lock in potentially harmful fumes (AFM Safecoat’s Safe Seal is one). Or to just make the problem go away, maybe it is time for new, greener furniture anyway. Avoid the formaldehyde trap and look for products made out of solid wood, no resin required.
     Keep an eye out for products made with sustainable alternatives to particle board, like Uniboard’s woodchip-based NU Green Zero, Environ’s newsprint and soy waste Biocomposite, and Pfleiderer’s renewable wheat straw PrimeBoard. These greener choices are bound with a polyurethane base free of formaldehyde and are popping up increasingly in the Targets and Walmarts of the world for those willing to read labels and ask questions to find the greenest versions of what is available.


     Safe Seal

     CDC: What You Should Know About Formaldehyde




     Finding  mattress you won't lose sleep over

     This column was reprinted with permission. EarthTalk is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit Send questions to:

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