Environment California released a report this month concerning high levels of formaldehyde emissions from baby furniture such as changing tables and cribs. It shouldn’t be a surprise, since it formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products have been a concern for years. Plus, the formaldehyde fiasco in the FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina has been relatively well publicized. But, you might not have thought about it. And, as far as I know, Environment California is the first to test formaldehyde emissions from baby furniture.
Why is formaldehyde emitted from baby furniture? Formaldehyde occurs naturally in wood. But, formaldehyde is also added to composite wood products. Specifically, formaldehyde based resins are used to hold together most composite wood products. So, particle board, hardwood plywood and medium density fiberboard (MDF) can all be sources of formaldehyde emissions. And baby cribs and baby changing tables, along with other similar furniture and cabinets, are typically made of composite wood products.
Formaldehyde offgasses (or escapes) from these products polluting indoor air quality and potentially exposing your baby. The California Air Resources Board reports that formaldehyde from pressed wood products can off-gas for years. Formaldehyde is released from unreacted formaldehyde present in the resin and as a result of chemical degradation over time. And, unfortunately, porous materials and furnishings, such as upholstered furniture, carpets, walls, and window coverings, can absorb formaldehyde and then re-emit it later. Basically, they act as formaldehyde sinks. So that comfy nursing chair may be absorbing formaldehyde, which can then be re-emitted later.
Why do we care about exposure to formaldehyde? Unlike bisphenol A (BPA) in polycarbonate plastic, there isn’t much debate about the health effects associated with exposure to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen. Chronic exposure to formaldehyde is linked to an increased risk for developing allergy sensitization and/or asthma. Several studies have documented that children exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde are at high risk of developing asthma and other respiratory diseases.
What did Environment California do? It took baby furniture purchased from major retailers such as Target and put the furniture in an enclosed environmental chamber. An independent laboratory measured the formaldehyde emissions from each piece of furniture. Then, the formaldehyde emission rate from each piece of furniture was extrapolated to determine how much the product would contribute to the indoor air concentration of formaldehyde in a typical house.
The results? For the highest emitter, the Child-Craft Oak Crib (purchased at Target) (pictured), placing it in a house with NO OTHER FORMALDEHYDE sources would result in an indoor air concentration of formaldehyde at 20 ppb. Since an elevated risk of asthma has been found in children exposed to indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde at 50 ppb, this is significant since most homes have many formaldehyde sources, from cabinets to other furniture. Other high formaldehyde emitters were the Bridget 4 in 1 Crib by Delta (Wal Mart), Kayla II Changing Table by Storkcraft (Babies R Us), Berkely Changing Table by Jardine Enterprises (Babies R Us), Country Style Changing Table by South Shore Furniture (Target) and Rochester Cognac Crib by Storkcraft (Target).
So what can you do?
Try these Smart Mama Simple Steps:
Skip composite wood products.
Go for non-toxic finishes. If you are buying wood furniture, make sure the coating is non-toxic. Look for natural finishes made with plant oils (although this includes d-limonene), tree resins, minerals and beeswax, or low or no-VOC finishes.
Just say no to formaldehyde. If you are buying furniture made with manufactured wood products, look for formaldehyde free products. Avoid bare, uncoated urea-formaldehyde pressed wood products that can emit relatively high amounts of formaldehyde.
Let it off-gas outside. Buying green can be expensive, and sometimes difficult to find. If you can’t find formaldehyde-free particleboard, then let the furniture off gas outside of the nursery, and preferably the home, before bringing the furniture inside. Make sure that the area has fresh air passing by so the formaldehyde will be removed.
Control climate. The amount of formaldehyde released is increased with increasing temperature and humidity. Keep the humidity and temperature low, and you can reduce the amount of formaldehyde released.
Seal bare urea-formaldehyde wood products with multiples layers of water resistant sealants. Research indicates that sealing bare urea-formaldehyde wood products can reduce formaldehyde emissions for months to years after application. Seal all unfinished edges of finished furniture. Of course, the sealants themselves may release other VOCs, so check labels carefully. Use a no or low VOC sealant.
Ventilate. Since babies spend 90% of their time indoors, make sure to keep the home well ventilated. Opening windows and using fans to move and circulate the air will lower formaldehyde levels inside.
Go green (literally). Some plants have shown an ability to remove pollutants from the air based upon a study by NASA to maintain air quality in confined spaces. They might not be effective in a house – the testing was limited to confined spaces. But, they couldn’t hurt (see caveat below). Plants shown to remove formaldehyde are those with large leaf surface areas, including Azalea Aloe Vera, Bamboo Palm, Boston ferns, Corn Plant, Chinese evergreen, Chrysanthemum, Date Palm, Dieffenbachia, Golden Pothos, Mini-Schefflera, Peace lily, Peperomia, Mother-in-law’s tongue, Philodendron (Heart-leaf, Lacy tree, or Elephant ear), Poinsettia, Snake Plant, and Spider Plant. But, I would consider avoiding those plants considered poisonous to infants. Also, indoor plants can be problematic. Mold can grow in potted soils and release spores into the air. Houseplants add moisture, thereby fostering the growth of mold and dust mites. No study confirms that houseplants remove significant quantities of pollutants in the home environment, but they may help remove some.