Confirming what’s long been suspected, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially lists formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Read the story from Reuters here.
When I first started building cabinets in 2000, no-added formaldehyde (NAF) plywoods and particle boards were a relatively rare thing. They existed, with most major manufacturers providing a line of sheet goods fabricated with an alternative to urea formaldehyde–the industry standard glue since World War II. But demand for the NAF products was weak and these lines didn’t tend to last. Manufacturers didn’t promote them as well as they could have; suppliers didn’t like having to carry what, in their minds, was duplicate inventory that had low demand; and cabinetmakers, contractors, and consumers generally weren’t educated enough in the availability and importance of the stuff to ask for it.
This all changed with the California Air Resources Board ruling in 2007 that phased in limits to formaldehyde in all sheet goods and all products made from sheet goods sold in the state. So not only did anyone who wanted to sell plywood in California have to comply with the new limits, anyone who wanted to sell a plywood cabinet, or MDF baseboard, or a particle board coffee table in California–that is, just about every domestic manufacturer in the business–also had to comply. These days, NAF is the new standard.
It’s useful to note, though, that the law only applies to California. Elsewhere, it’s important to check labels when you’re buying furniture and plywood, especially stuff made overseas where limits on formaldehyde are loose and enforcement is lax.