Composite Wood, Construction: Authorities Close in on Carcinogenic Formaldehyde Emissions
The long list of fraud cases which elude national or regional regulations continues. After the global Volkswagen emissions case, the US and Canadian authorities are turning their eyes to the wood import business, with millions of items being sold on national soil, putting consumer health at risk. The extent of the fraud is still not fully assessed, but regulators in the US and in Canada are already on the move to fill the gap.
Formaldehyde has long been identified as a known carcinogen. In significant quantities, its gaseous vaporization into the ambient air can cause a range of illnesses, going from simple bronchitis or irritation, to outright cancer. No specific factors are needed for the formaldehyde to gas off into the air, as it vaporizes at normal room temperature. Although the carcinogen factor can be expected to kick in only in the cases of long and serious exposure, limited exposure will trigger membrane irritation, flu-like symptoms and respiratory stress.
However, both the federal State and the market had, until now, the assurance that this risk was under control. Formaldehyde-containing products have long been known and listed by sanitary authorities. The EPA emitted standards to address the hazard long ago and, still to this day, the hazard is acknowledged on the EPA website (1):
The primary way you can be exposed to formaldehyde is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde. Everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the air that has off-gassed from products, including composite wood products.
Although formaldehyde is contained in raw wood, it is also excessively contained in the glue used in the production of composite wood, such as OSB-type wood or plywood. While formaldehyde is indeed useful to the chemical process and harmless when limited to authorized quantities, manufacturers are tempted to exceed proportions.
But in 2015, a news channel investigation revealed that these standards were in fact inefficient, because they were defrauded by certain businesses on the market. As China developed its trade with the West, manufactured goods imported from Asia have been soaring over past decades. Chinese wood, including plywood, is among the commonly imported goods. A “60 Minutes” investigation team went to visit a US-supplying production plant, and discovered that, although the timber was certified as compliant with US and Canadian standards, they were in fact sub-par. And yet, these production units feed businesses and shops throughout American and European markets. Journalist Jacob Geiger reported (2):
Shares of Lumber Liquidators plunged more than 25 percent Monday after a scathing “60 Minutes” report accused the Toano-based company of selling laminate flooring that contains high levels of formaldehyde. The 13-minute segment Sunday night claimed that hundreds of thousands of homes across the U.S. may have flooring with formaldehyde levels that exceed regulatory standards.
The New York Times (3) reported on a family which suffered various unexplained diseases and illnesses after moving into their new home, until the news release gave them the explanation:
Sol Hesney, 66, and his wife, Lynne, said they were mystified when their two dogs became sick shortly after they moved into their apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., five years ago. “The vet was stumped. We were stumped,” said Mr. Hesney, who ultimately had both dogs euthanized.
Formaldehyde gaseous emissions are harmful to both humans and animals, indistinctly. The owners had suffered serial sinus colds requiring medicinal treatment each time, and bronchitis, all symptoms compatible with formaldehyde gas exposure.
The investigation and its findings sent a shockwave throughout the country, as sanitation authorities started calculating how many homes contained the poisonous homes, after years of fraudulent and undetected import. Similarly, the market strongly reacted to the news, as many homeowners feel defrauded after having equipped their homes, sometimes at great expense, with wood they fear may put their families at risk now. The New York Times (4) reported on the frenzy:
Uneasy consumers have flooded state and federal safety agencies with inquiries about Lumber Liquidators, the discount flooring retailer accused in a “60 Minutes” episode of selling laminate wood with high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Should they rip it out? Leave it in? And what are the dangers to adults, children or even pets?
The market unrest triggered a federal investigation into the matter, as State sanitation authorities realized they had to address the matter: “Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York has now opened an inquiry into whether the company violated safety standards. Safety officials in California are also likely to investigate,” the New York Times reported.
US and Canadian are therefore tightening standards, by lining up national regulations with those of California, which is known for its demanding nature. Canada had only voluntary agreements between State authorities and industries, whereas the US had mandatory regulations. Both are expected to enforce tightened regulations from now on. While the creation and the implementation of these regulations may take a while longer, industrials on the market know they are coming, and that restoring customer trust will take time.
A significant impact is likely, on the construction market, in years to come, as wood-based or wood-containing construction projects must now add to the long-standing fire hazard, the gas poisoning risk.