Updated: Apr 22, 2021
My parents have a small holiday unit in Taiwan which they visit a few times a year. A couple of years ago they spent their Christmas break there after the unit had been locked up over the summer.
Now, let me tell you, summer in Taiwan is a lot like summer in Australia. Hot, humid and plain horrible if you don’t have air conditioning, a swimming pool, a beach or a shopping centre nearby.
When they first arrived at the unit my mum noticed a strange smell which she initially dismissed, but after having a nap that afternoon she woke up with a pounding headache and blurry vision, which for her was really unusual. On an inkling, my parents decided to stay at a hotel and had a building biologist come to conduct some tests, and lo and behold, the air in the unit was saturated with formaldehyde.
The furniture with which they had furnished the entire unit.
After being sealed and locked up for the whole summer, the unit was basically a dutch oven baking the furniture and causing it to off-gas the formaldehyde. Frighteningly, the level of formaldehyde in the air was so high that my parents were advised to get rid of ALL their furniture.
Formaldehyde is a gas commonly found in building materials and insulation, resins used in composite wood products like MDF, chipboard and plywood, and household products including glues, paints, varnishes, fertilisers, pesticides and personal care products.
Studies have shown exposure to formaldehyde can cause an increased risk of eye and nose irritation, asthma, allergies, headaches, memory loss, insomnia, nausea, gastrointestinal ulcers, and liver and kidney damage, and the US Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed it to be a known human carcinogen.
Although there are formaldehyde limits set for products manufactured in Taiwan (and this is the same for Australia), apparently the furniture was imported from China where there are no such regulations.
Sadly, cases like this aren’t uncommon.
In 2008, workers involved in the Aboriginal intervention in Australia’s Northern Territory were ordered to leave their accommodation after high levels of formaldehyde were found in panels used in their construction; and in the US, approximately 15,000 cases have been brought against the government for death and illness caused by formaldehyde in temporary accommodation provided to residents who lost their homes after hurricane Katrina in 2005. In both cases, building materials had been imported from overseas.
Scary stuff isn’t it!
If you’re concerned about formaldehyde in your furniture and building materials here are some things you can do.
Tips for reducing your exposure to formaldehyde in furniture and building materials
Buy furniture made from untreated, natural timber and natural materials such as cotton, bamboo and hemp.
Choose furniture and building materials that have been painted with non-toxic paints and finishes and constructed with non-toxic glues.
Choose second-hand furniture as the formaldehyde will have finished off-gassing.
If the above isn’t possible, place new furniture items out in the sun for a few days to off-gas before positioning them inside your home.
Ventilation is key! Formaldehyde emissions increase with higher temperatures and humidity so avoid having your house sealed up as much as possible. Open the doors and windows and get the air circulating with fans.
Choose building materials with an E0 (formaldehyde emissions less than 0.5 mg/l) or Super E0 (less than 0.3 mg/l rating.
Seal pressed-wood products with products such as 2 pac or non-toxic sealants to lock in the formaldehyde so that the gas is contained.
Choose locally made furniture and avoid purchasing furniture and building materials that have been imported or made of panels imported from other countries. You can choose EWPAA (Engineered Wood Products Association of Australasia) certified products as they routinely subject members’ products to rigorous independent third party testing.
After construction or renovation do a bake-off of your house. This involves closing up your house and using industrial heaters to heat the internal temperature to around 35 °C for a few days, and then letting it air out for another few days before moving back in.
Better safe than sorry, peeps!