A Guide to Choosing Pressed Wood and Laminated Wood Products for those Avoiding Formaldehyde and Chemicals
This post will cover pressed wood and laminated wood (engineered wood) products used in building and in household items like furniture and doors.
We are going to look at the adhesives they use, which chemicals are used as the binder/adhesive, and what do they offgas. I will also note which wood types are commonly used.
This is going to be the adhesives used in the US and Canada. Europe will be similar. Other parts of the world may use different adhesives.
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Adhesives used in Engineered Wood Products
MDI methylene diphenyl diisocyanate – offgasses methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, though the companies claim this cures into a polyurethane.
PF Phenol-Formaldehyde – The change to CARB 2 regulations forced most furniture/cabinet companies to move to phenol-formaldehyde. The offgassing is much lower and in many products comes to a complete cure in a short amount of time.
UF Urea Formaldehyde – This is the type of formaldehyde that offgasses at higher levels and for longer. When you think of furniture or flooring that is offgassing for many years it was likely made of urea-formaldehyde. Try and avoid this type.
NAUF No added Urea Formaldehyde, essentially means PF is used.
NAF No added formaldehyde, this means no formaldehyde is added to the product. They cannot be called formaldehyde-free because wood naturally contains formaldehyde. No added formaldehyde products are often made with MDI or “soy-based glue”.
Soy-Based Glue – we don’t know what is in a soy-based glue, just like soy-based foam which is mostly polyurethane, soy-based glue is likely a polyurethane glue. Saying something is soy-based does not tell us that much about it potential offgassing and toxicity.
Product Certification Formaldehyde Levels:
CARB II – Formaldehyde Levels
CARB II is a standard set by California for products sold there, but many products across North America comply with this requirement.
Products measured include those containing hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard – these are pressed wood products sold for indoors, it does not include exterior sheathing products like exterior plywood and OSB.
CARB II Formaldehyde Limits are:
|Hardwood Plywood||0.05 ppm (parts per million)|
|Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF)||0.11 ppm|
|Thin MDF||0.13 ppm|
E-0 E-1 and E-2 European Formaldehyde Levels
E1 certifies that boards release less than 0.1 ppm (parts per million) and for E2 boards 0.1 ppm and 0.3 ppm. E0 is 0.07 ppm
GreenGuard and GreenGuard Gold Formaldehyde Levels
GreenGuard 0.05 ppm (parts per million) formaldehyde and GreenGuard Gold 0.0073 ppm formaldehyde.
How Much Formaldehyde is Acceptable for those Avoiding Toxins?
How do you interpret these levels?
Formaldehyde is naturally occurring in wood and outside air. In fact, if you made a house completely out of wood, you could go over some recommended indoor formaldehyde levels.
Formaldehyde is also produced by human industries in the outside air and is always in the outdoor air whether you are rural or urban.
The rate of formaldehyde in outdoor air is about 0.0002-0.006 ppm in rural and suburban outdoor air, 0.0015-0.047 ppm in urban outdoor air Source. Another source cites the average level in U.S. urban areas is 0.011 – 0.02 ppm. The major sources are power plants, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, and automobile exhaust emissions. Source
Average indoor levels range from 0.020-4 ppm in indoor air Source.
Formaldehyde Reference Levels
|0.0002-0.006 ppm||Rural and suburban outdoor air|
|0.0015-0.047 ppm||Urban outdoor air|
|0.0073 ppm||GreenGuard Gold levels for products|
|0.020-4 ppm||Average levels in conventional homes/indoor air|
|0.04 ppm||Canada long-term exposure 8- hour average exposure limit|
|0.05 ppm||GreenGuard levels for products; CARB target level within a home|
|0.08||WHO guidelines for exposure|
|0.10 ppm||Upper limit for residences ASHRAE, EPA, short term exposure limit|
Level at which individuals have reported symptoms in studies
Health Canada short-term exposure 1-hour average limit
|0.50 ppm||OSHA 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) action level workplace limit|
|0.80 ppm||Level at which most people first detect odor|
|56 ppm||PAC-3 (Protective Action Criteria), AEGL-3, 60 minute Acute Exposure Guideline|
Wood Products & Adhesives
Plywood (Interior and Exterior) – Which Chemicals does it Offgas?
Exterior grades of plywood are used for roof sheathing, subfloors and roof decking. Exterior grades of plywood is made with phenol-formaldehyde as the binder/glue. Phenol formaldehyde is the least toxic type as it offgasses less and it ofgasses faster.
Exterior plywood can also be called structural plywood or softwood plywood (SWPW).
Type of wood:
It is made of softwood, usually fir (or spruce, pine). In Canada, Douglas Fir Plywood (DFP) (can have up to 21 other species of woods in the inner plies), and Canadian softwood plywood (CSP) may have Balsam poplar, trembling aspen and cottonwood.
When the American Plywood Association (APA) tested formaldehyde levels of new exterior plywood they started out below 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
But “emissions rapidly approached zero as the panels aged. In fact, the levels were so low and so close to the “background” levels in the test chamber that is was not possible to measure them accurately” source APA.
While the APA would not say exactly when the PF levels approached 0 or close to it, this is the study that changed my thinking on avoiding plywood in a new build. For most people, exterior plywood in a build will be sufficiently offgassed by the time the building is complete.
Testing your reactions:
If you are extremely sensitive you should test out plywood when new, after a few weeks and after 2-3 months of offgassing. You should also compare that to OSB, to see which is better for your health. I generally prefer plywood. My post on sheathing goes into more detail on alternatives if you need to avoid both plywood and OSB.
CDX is a type/grade of exterior plywood used for sheathing with an Exposure level of 1 other types ending in X are also made for the exterior.
In the US, marine-grade I’ve seen contains PF, but can use other glues as well. This is not a specific type of plywood in Canada.
Grades of Plywood:
Pressure-treated plywood is commonly is treated with Alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), Copper Azole (CBA) is another type, which contains copper, tebuconazole, and possibly boric acid. Though some is still treated with Chromated copper arsenate (CCA), this is not commonly used in residential buildings.
Interior grades of plywood were often is made with urea-formaldehyde as the adhesive. Urea-formaldehyde (UF) offgasses more and for longer.
Now, phenol-formaldehyde is more standard. Interior plywood is often called furniture grade or hardwood plywood. You will want to make sure your furniture is made with PF not UF or with NAF glues.
Interior plywood is made of hardwoods (usually) of various types, though it can be made of softwood like cedar.
Purebond no Added Formaldehyde Plywood – Purebond Plywood is widely known as the healthier alternative to interior grade plywood. Their adhesive is proprietary, but they claim it is “soy based”. Usually, this means a type of polyurethane or similar. I don’t find polyurethane glues preferable over phenol-formaldehyde.
I have seen chemically sensitive folks react to this brand of plywood so I would make sure to test it out yourself before using. Purebond plywood is interior grade, it is not structural and it is not made to hold up to high humidity.
Folks are using this improperly when using it as sheathing and roof decking. For those less sensitive Purebond is a good choice for furniture and cabinets. You can find it as a component of many preferred kitchen cabinets companies here. You can buy it at Home Depot and Amazon.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) – Which Chemicals does it Offgas?
MDF is usually made with urea-formaldehyde which offgasses more than phenol.
Where it’s used:
You will find MDF in cabinets, solid-core and hollow core doors, furniture and as part of flooring such as some laminates.
MDF is also used in baseboards and other trim which can easily be swapped out for solid wood.
Glues and offgassing:
There are brands of no added formaldehyde MDF that may be used by some specialty furniture makers but it is not what you will commonly see.
The levels of formaldehyde offgassing are higher in MDF than in plywood, even if both are CARB 2 certified – 0.11 ppm in MDF compared to 0.05 ppm for plywood.
MDF made with formaldehyde should be avoided where possible in a healthy home.
Oriented Strand Board (OSB) – Which Chemicals does it Offgas?
OSB is usually made using phenol-formaldehyde (PF) and MDI as the adhesive (MDI primarily in OSB though they claim the MDI fully cures into a polyurethane). MDI offgases isocyanates.
Where is it used:
OSB is often used in house sheathing – roof sheathing/decking, exterior sheathing and in floors (subfloors). Usually, OSB or plywood can use used interchangeably for the same application in building. Sensitive folks usually choose plywood over OSB, but some brands of OSB listed below can be very good.
OSB is made from either hardwoods or softwoods. The most commonly used softwoods for manufacturing OSB are pines/firs/spruce and aspen is the most commonly used hardwood.
In the US look for APA OSB which will not contain UF. There is no added formaldehyde OSB, but they may be harder to source.
Particleboard/Low-Density Fiberboard (LDF) – Which Chemicals does it Offgas?
Urea-formaldehyde (UF) (the type that offgasses more and for longer) is usually used as the adhesive in particleboard. You may also see MDI used.
Where is it used:
Particleboard can be used in cabinets and in some inexpensive furniture.
Structural Beams and which Chemicals they Offgas
- Glulam, PSL, LVL are usually made with phenol-formaldehyde (PF).
- PF is also used for finger joining stress graded lumber.
- TGI beams are made with PF and MDI glues. Cross-laminated timber can be made with a variety of different glues (but not urea-formaldehyde).
- LSL is mainly made with the adhesive MDI and I have seen a small percentage of undisclosed binders.
- i beams are made of steel
To avoid laminated wood beams you will have to consider that decision in the very initial planning and design of your house. See this post on considerations that need to be made early in the build for the chemically sensitive.
Chemical Adhesives by Brand
Brands of Plywood and OSB and which Chemicals they use as Glues
- Norbond Trubond – PF and MDI
- Aventech Roof OSB – PF and MDI
- Avantech Subfloor – PF and MDi (claims to be lower-emitting that typical OSB)
- Ultrastock MDF – UF
- Medex and Medite II by Roseburg – No formaldehyde MDF
- Purebond Plywood – no added formaldehyde, proprietary glue used
- Roseburg – only lists PF as glue
- Zip Systems – Phenol formaldehyde and MDI
- Georgia Pacific DryGaurd (what glue?) claim to be lower-emitting than typical OSB.
Cost comparison of OSB, plywood and Avantech Sheathing.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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