Is Particleboard Deadly? Formaldehyde Emissions Explained

Formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products will soon be strictly regulated in the U.S., but questions remain.

July 6, 2015

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring and ubiquitous VOC—we even produce tiny amounts in our own bodies—but exposure to higher-than-normal levels of formaldehyde can trigger dangerous reactions, including asthma. As an industrial chemical, the substance is known to cause nasopharyngeal cancer, though very rarely. Some studies have also found a correlation to occupational leukemia, but causal links aren’t established.

Background levels of formaldehyde in developed areas tend to average around 0.03 parts per million (it’s higher with more vehicle exhaust), but regulatory agencies around the world haven’t agreed about how much formaldehyde is too much. The lack of consensus can make this a difficult substance to regulate. But we’ve known since the 1980s that composite wood products can be a significant source of elevated exposure for building occupants, and there have been many efforts to reduce emissions from these products.