You may have noticed a label included your furniture that reads, “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” It sounds awful, but what is this and why would we sell you something that requires such a notification? This label is California's Prop 65 warning, officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Because California has the strictest policies in the U.S. regarding what is disclosed to consumers, and the inclusion of any of the approximately 900 chemicals on the list requires a label, state law mandates that any such product that is sold within California borders have a notice. It does not make the product harmful to the customer. What it does do is ensure that consumers can make informed decisions.
So, what do we have in our furniture that warrants this notice? The short answer is formaldehyde, but before we get too deep into the good or bad, it might first be helpful to address some terminology. Formaldehyde is a chemical compound comprised of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, and is the natural biproduct of cell metabolism for all living things. It can occur both naturally and artificially, but this means that all matter-you and everything around you-is made of chemicals. By these definitions, we can’t necessarily describe a formaldehyde as harmful.
In concentrated form, formaldehyde is a strong-smelling, colorless, flammable gas. Unconcentrated, it can be safely found in foods like fruits, vegetables, and meats, which all contain low levels of formaldehyde. So do personal care items such as nail polishes, shampoos, and deodorants; the resins on your car dashboard, the glues used to make particleboard furniture, and even vaccines and medicine. There are many antibacterial and preservative properties in this chemical, which is why it is so widely used in manufacturing.
It is easy enough to say that concentrated formaldehyde is dangerous and unconcentrated is safe, but there is not an exact or universal “safe” number that blankets all products; it would be an apples to oranges comparison to juxtapose the ideal number of one product with that of another. It is also important to note that the amounts are different during manufacturing than what is found in the finished good. Formaldehyde is broken down by air, moisture, and sunlight. Although it takes a fair amount of adhesive in manufacturing to create particle and MDF boards, the proportions of formaldehyde still might surprise you.
During production, our numbers are below the government mandated levels of 0.09 parts per million (ppm) for particleboard and 0.11 ppm for MDF. This is not a lot, but even these amounts would begin to dissipate not long after the wood panels are made. The levels are well beneath government protocol (TSCA Title VI) and California’s regulations of “safe to sell” (CARB Phase 2); the Prop 65 warning merely lets consumers know that chemicals are present.
In addition to its antibacterial and preservative qualities, there are several other benefits specific to wood attributed to formaldehyde. While many of us would prefer a solid oak dresser or bookshelf, most would not prefer the price tag affixed to that item. Laminated particleboard and MDF are versatile, high performing, and offer an affordable alternative to solid wood. Additionally, they provide an environmentally friendly use for wood biproducts that would otherwise be wasted. Sawdust, shavings, and wood chips are all incorporated into the manufacturing process, allowing the earth’s resources to stretch further.
Scientific studies show that the relationship between cancer and formaldehyde fumes is due only to frequent, significant, and prolonged exposure. The Prop 65 labels are not wrong that chemicals such as formaldehyde are potentially carcinogenic, and our intent is not to shortchange this information but rather to clarify it. The levels you encounter throughout the day while sitting at your desk, pulling clothes from your dresser drawers, or propping your feet on the coffee table are not enough to be harmful.