How did a substance used as embalming fluid (formaldehyde) and another one that replicates something in our urine (urea) end up in our cabinets?
Let me make something clear: I'm talking about the materials that our cabinets are made from. Unless your house is really old (or you’re really wealthy), your cabinets are likely made of particleboard, plywood, or MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). Particleboard is a composite material made of wood scraps (chips, shavings, or sawdust) that are bound together with resins made of—you guessed it—formaldehyde, urea, and other chemicals that make the wood-like substances stronger and more resistant to fire and water. Particleboard does have eco-origins: it was developed during World War II as a way to salvage waste materials from factories and, during the 1950s, was incorporated into home design and perceived as an upgrade from solid wood.
Today, particleboard—and its stronger siblings plywood and MDF—are the most ubiquitous of products because they’re cheap and lightweight. Plywood is comprised of thin layers of wood glued together at right angles. MDF is denser than particleboard and has the added potential to be greener (when comprised of rapidly renewable fibers such as bamboo) and cleaner (when non-toxic, water-based resins are used as binders). Both materials are used in place of plain wood to reduce warping, shrinking, and variance.
As I planned my recent kitchen remodel, I spent a lot of time researching cabinet options. I considered using eco-MDF. There are benefits to eco-MDF (for example, it's much cheaper than solid wood). But I also think of these manufactured products as homogenized trees, stripped of their quirky characters and life-like qualities. They are definitely easier to work with, yet something wonderful gets lost when you reconstitute wood—and, in the case of conventional manufactured wood products, douse them in toxic chemicals. In the end, I decided to keep my cabinet bodies and shelves, and to replace just the doors with
(Note: The above picture is of my kitchen pre-remodel. I'll post more details and pictures of my renovated kitchen soon!)
Formaldehyde is commonly blended with urea to create permanent adhesives for wood products and carpeting. It’s also classified as a known human carcinogen. Exposure primarily occurs through inhalation, which wouldn’t be such a big problem if testing hadn’t shown manufactured wood products continue to off-gas urea formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (which I explain here) over time. In short: if it’s in the product, it’s in your house.
The best way to avoid these VOCs is to check and see if your products contain them. Big chains such as IKEA have responded to consumer concerns and are working to reduce the amounts of VOC in their furniture. Consumer pressure may encourage others to follow suit.
These kinds of chemicals are unavoidable. Formaldehyde is in facial tissues, insulation, and all sorts of textiles. Urea is used in fertilizers, plastics, dish soap, and teeth whitening products. Both are found in cigarettes.) But now that we know they are there, we can work to reduce exposure where it makes sense. Cabinets might be one such place.
Photo by Jessica Sain-Baird.