Federal Formaldehyde Regulations: What You Need to Know

Oct. 21, 2010
The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act will take effect in July 2011.

On July 7, President Obama signed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act into law, setting nationwide limits for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products including hardwood plywood, particleboard and medium-density fiberboard. Some of the new standards will take effect as early as July 2011.

The law, which is to be enforced by the U.S. EPA, is modeled after a similar regulation by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and affects a wide range of everyday products including furniture, consumer shelving, Do-it-Yourself assembly products, flooring, paneling, molding and even picture frames. As a result, every U.S. retailer, distributor and manufacturer that sells, supplies or manufacturers these products is affected.

This federal amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) imposes significant requirements for the entire composite wood products value chain. While there are some exemptions, there are also key steps that must be taken to avoid potential penalties and other regulatory repercussions.

The Problem with Formaldehyde

Listed as a carcinogen, formaldehyde has been long been considered a restricted substance, most notably associated with preservation and adhesives-particularly those used in the manufacture of building materials and household wood products. An accumulation of research recently determined that the emissions given off by particle board, hardwood paneling and medium-density fiberboard could lead to respiratory symptoms and other negative health affects.

The CARB regulations addressed these concerns by implementing very low emissions standards for formaldehyde in a wide range of pressed board products. Now, the federal government has adopted these regulations on a national scale. The emissions limits are being implemented in a two-phase system as follows:

Material Phase I Phase II
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) 0.21 PPM 0.11 PPM
Thin (<8mm) MDF 0.21 PPM 0.13 PPM
Particle Board 0.18 PPM 0.09 PPM
Composite Core Hardwood Plywood (HWPW-CC) 0.08 PPM 0.05 PPM
Veneer Core Hardwood Plywood (HWPW-VC) 0.08 PPM 0.05 PPM

While most domestic manufacturers have already been certified to the CARB standard, the bigger issue may be that a large number of imported products have yet to achieve certification-a fact that puts distributors and retailers of these products at risk. Nearly 1,000 mills and factories in China currently produce these materials, many of which may not meet these requirements. Distributors and retailers need to remain vigilant in ensuring that the products they procure meet the Act's requirements, or they, too, face serious consequences.

Who and What must be Certified?

According to the regulations, all manufacturers, distributors and retailers of medium-density fiber board (MDF), hardwood plywood and particle board-as well as any product that uses these materials in its construction-must clearly demonstrate an ongoing program of compliance and provide evidence of compliance.

Products must be inspected and certified at the manufacturer's level, but proof of certification must accompany the product all the way through the sales chain. This proof must come in the form of both labeling or stamping the material or finished product itself AND including the certification compliance on all paperwork that accompanies the product (such as purchase orders and invoices) through the sales chain.

When a furniture product, for example, reaches the showroom floor, the customer-or an inspector-must be able to easily locate the label to verify compliance or ask to see the appropriate paperwork. In the case of decorative products, the label may be affixed to the packaging, rather than the product itself.

The Act is strict in its scope of liability: every party of the value chain is equally responsible-from the manufacturer to the consumer, including the fabricator, importer and retailer-for demonstrating compliance.

Are There Exceptions?

The Act does exempt certain products that are primarily used outdoors or that contain only small amounts of composite wood products. Exemptions include hardboard, softwood plywood, OSB and other engineered or laminated wood products that meet specified industry standards. In addition, finger-jointed lumber, wood packaging materials (including skids, crates and pallets), certain windows, garage and exterior doors are also excluded. Composite wood products used in vehicles, rail cars, boats, aerospace and aircraft are also not included.

How Can I Achieve Certification?

In order to be certified compliant, manufacturers of regulated products must conduct an initial inspection and engage in ongoing testing of samples through the use of a third-party certifier (TPC), of which 34 are currently approved to conduct the required testing per the Act's requirements. In addition to a manufacturing audit to establish base-line compliance, follow-on quarterly and quality control testing are mandated.

The only way to establish compliance is to procure the services of a CARB-approved TPC. Finding a local TPC can help significantly reduce the cost and time involved in achieving and maintaining certification by eliminating travel and product shipment expenses. This is particularly important with regard to overseas manufacturers or importers of foreign goods. Only a handful of TPCs are approved in Asia, including SGS, which has three labs in China, plus one in Taipei, Taiwan.

Manufacturers should also be sure to select a reputable, legacy company with the demonstrated capacity to meet compliance needs on an ongoing basis. With sample testing required quarterly, it's important to partner with a TPC that can handle these demands.

What about product already in the value chain or even on the retail floor?

The number one question posed by distributors and retailers is what to do about noncompliant product that is already in the pipeline. Can it be tested and certified complaint? The short answer is no. Because every change made to the product, such as painting, varnishing or staining, also alters the formaldehyde emission level (and it's the "raw" emissions that must be measured/certified), the only option is deconstructive testing. Obviously, breaking down the product into individual components involves sanding or stripping it to restore its original form, which makes it unsalable.

The Act does provide specific sell-through dates that are designed to allow uncertified product to clear through the sales channel. The last day for selling completely uncertified product of any type is December 31, 2011. Phase I and Phase II sell-through dates vary based on each product type, as follows:

Last Day for Selling Phase 1 6/30/2011 12/31/2013 6/30/2013 6/30/2012 6/30/2013

This schedule makes for full implementation of the Act on January 1, 2014.

What About Penalties?

While there have not yet been any fines issued under California's CARB act, mostly due to flexibility in the sell-through dates, that is not to say that the federal law will not be more stringently enforced. When the CARB law took affect on January 1 of last year-in the throes of a steep economic recession-the prospect of massive recalls to eliminate noncompliant product was less than palatable for the industry. Thus, the sell-through date was extended.

With the EPA tasked with promulgating and implementing the law, including setting up guidelines for enforcement and penalties, many expect that it will follow CARB guidelines.

Meanwhile, rather than worry about penalties and violations, it's best to avoid the issue altogether. Manufacturers should take the necessary steps now to achieve compliance by working with a reputable and experienced TPC, while distributors and retailers must insist that only certified product passes through their doors.

Chuck Coletta, P.E., is Technical Director - International Hardlines for SGS Consumer Testing Services, an independent inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

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