Volume 7, Issue 11 - December 2006


Resistance Expected
California Formaldehyde Regulation to Draw Opposition

by Michael Fischer

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) staff continues efforts to create a regulation governing the use of composite wood products that contain urea-formaldehyde resins. 

How it Started
The California legislature, following up on studies completed back in 1992, directed CARB to provide for regulations that reduced formaldehyde emissions. Armed with health risk assessments from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), CARB staff members have been working with stakeholders within the affected industries, and environmental and health advocates, to implement a regulation that would reduce formaldehyde emissions in California as well as the likelihood of naso-pharyngeal cancer resulting from exposure to formaldehyde fumes.

Unfortunately, the regulation as drafted in October, and in fact the entire premise upon which it is based, is critically flawed. Jim Aguila of the CARB staff addressed the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) members at its recent fall conference, and conceded that, while questions have been raised about the health risks, CARB was mandated to work with the OEHHA report. Aguila and the rest of the CARB staff members have a difficult task ahead in trying to make sense of all the information and satisfy all concerns.

The regulation will be posted this month by CARB staff and heard by the board at a public hearing in January, where it will likely draw considerable opposition from the composite wood industry. 

While CARB staff has endeavored to involve the public and industry stakeholders in discussions as the regulation has evolved, many basic issues remain unresolved including:

Health Risks
The CARB Executive Summary from July 1992 refers to California OEHHA staff findings and makes the claim that formaldehyde has been identified as a probable human carcinogen based upon animal studies. However, the OEHHA report states “epidemiological evidence for human cancer from exposure to formaldehyde is limited.” In fact, the 1997 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on formaldehyde defines formaldehyde as a toxic air pollutant, and states “whether or not the air pollutant formaldehyde is injurious to human health is controversial. Results from human epidemiological studies, animal inhalation studies and cell culture essays suggest that formaldehyde has the potential to cause adverse human health effects, including cancer.” 

EPA reports also include references to a study by the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia that looked at formaldehyde exposure to human epithelial cells. One of the conclusions from this study is that “none of the formaldehyde exposures, either alone or in combination with the… metabolite, produced any cancerous changes in the epithelial cells in their exposure system.”

During the CARB workshop in October, Lee R. Shull PhD of MWH Global in Sacramento claimed that more than 50 epidemiology studies have consistently been unable to prove a definitive cause-effect relationship between formaldehyde exposure and cancer in humans. Furthermore, Shull stated that human cells are equipped to metabolize and detoxify airborne formaldehyde at levels up to 2.0 parts per million (ppm). CARB staff reports claim that there is no safe threshold for formaldehyde exposure, despite the fact that it is a naturally-occurring compound that is emitted as a by product of human respiration. 

The EPA reports that even lesser health effects, particularly respiratory difficulties and asthma, occur only in concentrations above 0.1 ppm and that studies that show a relationship between formaldehyde exposure and cancer are based upon occupational exposures where the expected exposure levels would be greater than in residential settings. Setting a threshold level for exposure makes sense. 

Cost Effects
The CARB staff report from the October workshop took a stab at identifying the potential cost impact from the proposed regulation. Unfortunately, the cost analysis is incomplete and overlooks basic economics. The report looked at a handful of new home floor plans and attempted to determine the amount of regulated composite wood products in a typical new home. The CARB cost impact includes the cost of resin substitutions at the manufacturer level alone resulting in material cost changes, makes a few assumptions about the product mix and estimates an increased cost of between $242 and $507 per home.

What the cost impact estimate does not include, however, is any additional margin on the products down the stream of commerce. The CARB cost estimate does not include any costs for testing, labeling or third-party quality assurance, all required by the draft regulation. It also does not include any other effects on manufacturing. Some medium-density fiberboard (MDF) products using alternate resin systems require higher press temperatures and longer cycle times. The CARB analysis includes no consideration of the energy costs to the manufacturer. Ironically, it also includes no consideration of the potential adverse effects to outdoor air quality by increased emission from the plants that manufacture the regulated products. 

Michael Fischer of the Kellen Company serves as director of codes and regulatory compliance for the Window and Door Manufacturers Association. He may be reached at MFischer@wdma.com.

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