Dream Kitchen or Health Hazard: Formaldehyde and Indoor Air Quality

January 30, 2009

Home remodel leads to family’s illness.

Sharon and her family felt ill.  They were coughing and wheezing.  Their eyes were watery and red.  They had headaches and rashes on their skin.

Sharon contacted an industrial hygienist about their problems.  Just a few questions led to the culprit.  Formaldehyde can cause precisely the symptoms Sharon and her family experienced.  Formaldehyde is also a carcinogen.

Sharon and her husband had just remodeled their home, installing new cabinets, counters, and wood laminate floors throughout.  The entire house had a fresh coat of paint and a “new house” smell.

Many wood products, especially pressed wood products, off gas formaldehyde and other volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).  Finishes and adhesives on cabinets and floors can also off gas formaldehyde.  Paints are common sources of formaldehyde.

When windows are closed, chemicals concentrate inside the home.  Formaldehyde reaches concentrations many times the outside air, especially in newer well-insulated homes.  Formaldehyde concentration in older homes is generally well below 0.1 ppm, the level where people start to experience irritation.  However, new homes or recently remodeled homes can have more than 0.3 ppm of formaldehyde.

Fortunately for Sharon, the industrial hygienist had some simple suggestions to alleviate the problem.

  • Open windows whenever possible.  New wood products and finishes will off gas more formaldehyde during the first year.  After a few years, they no longer release substantial formaldehyde.
  • Avoid using air fresheners.  Use cleaning products sparingly, especially on high-ozone days, and open windows after cleaning.  Terpenes (found in pine and citrus-scented products) react with ozone to produce formaldehyde.
  • Never use “air purifiers” that produce ozone.  Ozone generated by these machine reacts with terpenes, producing formaldehyde.  Ozone is also an irritant by itself.
  • Home test kits with dosimeter tubes are easy to use and much less expensive than professional testing.  Measure formaldehyde over the seasons and after using cleaning products.  Ventilate the house to keep formaldehyde below 0.1 ppm.

Low VOC wood products and finishes are available, but they are generally more expensive than common products.  The additional cost may be justified in bedrooms, playrooms, or when family members have respiratory problems.

Photo from Wikimedia

Related articles:

Never Mind the Earth, Green Your Home for Your Health

Green Cabinets: When Wood is Good


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