New Report: Formaldehyde from Baby Nursery Furniture Contaminates Indoor Air Read Report.

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John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

Environment America

Baby nursery cribs, changing tables, and dressers can emit formaldehyde at levels linked with increased risk of childhood allergies and asthma, according to a new report released today by Environment California Research & PolicyCenter. In Toxic Baby Furniture: The Latest Case for Making Products Safe from the Start, Environment California Research & Policy Center worked with an independent laboratory to determine whether formaldehyde emissions from common baby nursery furnishings significantly contribute to indoor air pollution.

“One toxic chemical after another, we’re finding them in our children’s products at levels known to contribute to significant health problems ranging from asthma to cancer. Unfortunately, formaldehyde is just the latest example,” said Rachel Gibson, report co-author and staff attorney for Environment California. “Right now, through the Green Chemistry Initiative, California has the opportunity to provide real protections to children by requiring the replacement of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.”

Environment California Research & Policy Center worked with an independent laboratory to test 21 products intended for use in a baby nursery. We purchased the products from Babies “R” Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. Six of the cribs, changing tables, and dressers produced high levels of formaldehyde emissions—levels associated with an increased risk of developing allergies and asthma. 

  • Of the products tested, the Child Craft Oak Crib emitted the  highest levels of formaldehyde. The crib includes a drawer made with composite wood, which is often manufactured using formaldehyde-based glue.
  • Other products with high formaldehyde emissions included the Bridget 4-in-1 Crib by Delta, the Kayla II Changing Table by Storkcraft, the Berkley Changing Table by Jardine Enterprises, the Country Style Changing Table by South Shore Furniture, and the Rochester Cognac Crib by Storkcraft.
  • The remaining 15 products tested, including the Olympia Single Crib by Jardine Enterprises; several wastebaskets, lamps, and shelves made with composite wood; and several window valances and wall hangings, emitted relatively low levels of formaldehyde.

The implications of these findings are startling:

  • A new single-family home furnished with a Child Craft Oak Crib and a Storkcraft Kayla II Changing Table—and no other furniture—would have indoor formaldehyde levels of about 30 parts per billion (ppb) on average throughout the entire house. A unit in a new apartment building would have indoor formaldehyde levels as high as 52 ppb.
  • Studies have shown that chronic exposure to formaldehyde at levels greater than 16 ppb in indoor air is linked with an increased likelihood of respiratory problems (such as coughing) and allergies in children. Indoor formaldehyde levels greater than 50 ppb have been associated with an increased risk of diagnosed asthma.
  • Formaldehyde levels could be higher in the actual baby nursery. For example, in a lightly-ventilated nursery furnished with a Child Craft Oak Crib, formaldehyde levels could be as high as 75 ppb.

Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical widely used in the manufacturing of building materials and a variety of household products. Manufacturers use formaldehyde in glues and adhesives, as a preservative in paints, and as a means to give fabrics a permanent-press quality. When used in the home, formaldehyde-containing products can release the chemical into indoor air. In particular, products made from composite wood containing urea-formaldehyde glue tend to create indoor air pollution.

Children chronically exposed to elevated levels of airborne formaldehyde face an increased risk of developing allergies and asthma. In addition, the state of California and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. 

The California Air Resources Board recently finalized a new rule to limit the amount of formaldehyde emissions acceptable in products made of composite wood that are sold or used in California. With vigorous enforcement, this regulation will reduce our exposure to formaldehyde.

However, the new regulation will not eliminate formaldehyde emissions from consumer products. Even under the new limits established by the rule, a home with composite-wood furnishings could still contain the high levels of formaldehyde associated with chronic health problems. Moreover, formaldehyde represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to toxic chemicals in consumer products.

First it was toxic chemicals in crib mattresses, then toxic chemicals in plastic teethers, toys, and baby bottles, now toxic chemicals in baby furniture. California has the opportunity to lead the nation in moving beyond the chemical by chemical approach to getting known hazards out of consumer products. The state has undertaken a new initiative—called the Green Chemistry Initiative—to tackle the problem of toxic chemicals in consumer products using a more holistic approach. Later this month, the California Environmental Protection Agency will release draft recommendations that will address, among other things, how to systematically remove toxic chemicals from consumer products.

To be successful, California’s Green Chemistry Initiative must:

  • Require chemical manufacturers to prove their chemicals are safe before allowing them to be used in consumer products,
  • Empower state regulators to restrict or ban the manufacture and use of chemicals that pose potential dangers to human health or the environment, and
  • Ensure the public has access to information about chemicals used in consumer products and the potential health impacts they pose.

As with other toxic chemicals, alternatives to formaldehyde exist. For example, Columbia Forest Products, which is North America’s largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer, uses a natural adhesive made primarily of soy flour and water as a substitute for formaldehyde-based adhesives. Notably, these products cost no more than those made with the standard urea-formaldehyde adhesive. 

In the absence of government action, Environment CaliforniaResearch & Policy Center recommends that parents and others caring for children do the following:

  • Ask about the formaldehyde emissions of furniture, cabinetry, and building materials before you purchase and install them in your home. If such information is not available, avoid products that have components made of raw medium density fiberboard or other types of composite wood.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation and maintain moderate temperatures and humidity levels within your home.
  • Place pollution-absorbing plants—such as spider plants, Boston ferns, dwarf date palms, pot mums, or peace lilies—in your home.

“Parents cannot be expected to deal with these issues on their own,” said Gibson.  “While California has taken some action to reduce exposures to formaldehyde, the state must do more. The governor promised he would work to protect children’s health, and now he needs to fulfill his promise.”