Fighting the Fog

Formaldehyde-emitting adhesives can have a big impact on indoor air quality, but new options promise to help clear the air.

Interior designers and architects are facing escalating pressures from clients and the public to make informed decisions about the interior furnishings and building materials they specify. At issue is the impact of these products on the quality of indoor air.

Among the chemicals widely recognized as contributing to poor indoor air quality is formaldehyde, which was officially designated a known human carcinogen by the U.S. government in mid-2011. What is particularly troublesome for the A&D community is the fact that the government report expressed specific concerns about formaldehyde emissions from wood-bonding adhesives used in manufactured wood products, such as furniture and flooring, as well as construction products like particleboard, fiberboard and hardwood plywood.

indoor air quality in schools
While air quality is a concern in all indoor environments, a “poster child” for this issue is emerging. Attention is increasingly focused on the quality of air in academic environments. Studies show that more than 50,000 elementary and secondary schools in the United States have indoor air quality issues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Considering the millions of students, faculty and administrators housed in these buildings, the impact of poor air quality is far-reaching. Parents, elected officials and the public are expressing concerns about both the susceptibility of children to pollutants and the well-being of faculty and others who spend time in these schools. The impact of polluted air on academic achievement at a time when educational excellence is so important is also being questioned.

Concerned administrators in some school districts have gone so far as to develop “black” or “red” lists of chemicals that are not allowed in products used to construct or furnish their schools. Formaldehyde is conspicuously present on virtually all of these lists.

Interior designers and architects involved in school projects often find themselves pulled in opposite directions. Doing the right thing in terms of indoor air quality is a given for virtually all of them.

However, that’s often easier said than done. The research needed to separate the facts from fiction regarding formaldehyde-emitting adhesives can be time-consuming and confusing, due to the arcane terminology used by the adhesives industry and a general lack of transparency. Furthermore, many cash-strapped school districts may not want to pay for the additional research to find suitable substitutes for formaldehyde-emitting cabinets, desks, tables and doors.

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A new generation of adhesives is allowing for the production of wood products without the introduction of formaldehyde. For example, FSC-certified PlybooStrand plywood and flooring are both urea formaldehyde-free. The plywood is certified Indoor Advantage Gold® and the flooring is FloorScore® certified.
photograph courtesy of