Wood Product Manufacturers Bracing for CARB 2009

August 21, 2008

CARB2The air is going to get a little bit cleaner come January, 2009 – and that has nothing to do with a new presidential administration.  The California Air Resources Board’s dramatic Air Toxic Control Measure known as “the CARB rule” will go into effect January 1 and will, among other things, mandate a reduction in formaldehyde levels in composite wood products like particle board, hardwood plywood, and medium density fiberboard.  Manufacturers of composite wood products have less than four months to adapt to the new requirements or they will be unable to manufacture or sell their products in California.

Formaldehyde came into the public consciousness this past Winter as trailers used for Hurricane Katrina victims were found to contain dangerous levels – click here for those findings.  Urea-formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound that has been linked to health issues ranging from persistent eye and skin irritation to asthma to, in extremely high levels, cancer.  It has been practically banned in Europe, Japan, and Canada.  The United States Green Building Council awards LEED credits for buildings that have eliminated added urea-formaldehyde.  The inclusion of the word “added” is due to the fact that small levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in wood.  Urea-formaldehyde is used in composite wood as a drying agent for glues and adhesives, significantly speeding up the manufacturing process of the composite wood.  For this reason, non-formaldehyde composite woods will come at a higher price.  Add in the increased demand due to the CARB rule and the current limited supply of formaldehyde-free composite wood and we could see increased prices across the board for composite wood products like furniture, cabinets, moldings and millwork, doors, and many other products. 

The Composite Panel Association (CPA) has a new website to help manufacturers understand the new rules and find resources to help them through the transition.  Included on the website are several excellent PDFs, including a fact sheet and a rule reference guide.  The CPA even has a testing center, though it’s located in Virginia, to determine if a product is CARB compliant.  I have to give the CPA a lot of credit for taking an issue that has far reaching repercusions in their industry and, instead of using their resources fighting it, they are actively helping their members make the changes necessary for compliance. Their website lists over 40 North American plants that are producing CARB compliant products.

In many respects, the CPA has been ahead of the curve in offering low formaldehyde options.  Back in 2006 the CPA established an Environmentally Preferable Product certification for composite wood with low levels of formaldehyde and with the added green bonus of recycled or renewable content.  The list of companies in the program can be found here.  While the CPA EPP program is separate from the CARB rule, companies within the EPP program offer wood that complies with the CARB rule.

There will be grumbles, complaints, even protests over the CARB rule, but manufacturers are starting to see that California may only be the beginning of a nationwide trend in significantly lowering formaldehye levels within the home.  The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) is preparing their members for CARB compliance, and will be offering a CARB compliance panel at their industry conference next month.

Even with the drastic changes to composite wood products, this issue will reappear in 2011, when even stricter air quality controls go into effect in California.

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