Formaldehyde

Posted by Henry Taksier, June 22, 2010

So Teddi’s cough was really getting bad and I had always known that our home had a potential danger from the laminate floors. Ever since I’d moved in, I was often bothered by a sickeningly sweet smell in the mornings – after the house had been closed up all night – and I suspected that it could be formaldehyde off-gassing from the pressed-wood flooring. The vet had ruled out kennel cough and suggested that she might have tracheal collapse, a common condition in older small dogs that could be exacerbated by intubation, which she’d had in her recent surgery.

Researching tracheal collapse, I learned that while it is not unusual or fatal, it can be aggravated by poor indoor air quality. So I decided it was time to find out whether our home was thick with formaldehyde. I found a test kit at a nearby lab, and bought it for about $40. It was a simple assembly that I opened up and positioned at Teddi’s height level for 48 hours, then sent back to the lab for analysis.

The first report was incorrectly based on a 24-hour test and the result was .05 ppm; but I conducted a 48-hour test, and the second report based on that info indicated a level of .02 ppm. Not as bad, but still higher than the ‘recommended’ .008 ppm for constant exposure – this is calculated by the EPA for people, not five lb. dogs. The lab report read:

“The U.S. EPA and The American Lung Association recommend a maximum level of 0.1 ppm for formaldehyde in indoor air. Because some people may be sensitive to lower concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry has recommended Minimum Risk Levels (MRL’s) that depend on the duration of personal exposure.

Below the MRL, there are no significant health effects in most people.

MRL=0.04ppm (1 to 14 days exposure)
MRL=0.03 ppm (14 to 364 days exposure)
MRL=0.008 ppm (365 or more days exposure)”

I am not a scientist or statistician, but it certainly looked to me like our level of exposure, whether .02 or .05 ppm was significantly higher than the minimum risk level of .008 ppm recommended for constant exposure. I do know that the MRL is based on a full-size human, not the body size of a child or pet. I checked with a couple of environmental scientists who might be able to confirm my conclusion, but was unable to get any kind of definitive corroboration immediately. None-the-less, I agreed with my friend Carol Goodwin, co-owner of Goodwin Heartpine Lumber who had been exposed to formaldehyde in her home years ago, and said she had experienced some health effects. Carol encouraged me to replace the fake-wood floors with some of her beautiful solid wood flooring or their new product, Precision Engineered wood floors which are similar to laminate products except they’re made with several thin layers of solid wood, glued together with a very low formaldehyde adhesive. Since I was trying to get away from formaldehyde, and I was concerned that wood flooring would look too fancy in my rustic little cottage, I wasn’t sure about wood flooring, but I knew that I needed some different kind of floor. So I accepted Carol’s offer to come over on a Sunday morning to help me pull up the fake-wood floors. We didn’t know whether we’d be successful, but decided to get started on the project and if it turned out to be more than we could handle, I’d find professionals to finish the job.

I ran into another friend, Robert Pearce, at a party on Saturday night. Robert owns several rental properties and handles all of his own maintenance. I told him what we were planning to do the next day, and he offered to stop by and assess the project and give us his advice. Robert showed up at 11 a.m. and took a look around. “I can tell you one thing,” he said as he observed my waterbed in the bedroom. “You’ll never get the floors pulled up out of this house in one day.”

Although Robert hadn’t planned to get involved in helping us with the project, within a few minutes we were pulling furniture to one side of the living room. He went to the sliding glass doorway on the east side of the room, where the raw edges of the flooring were exposed, and lifted a section with his hand. We knew the floors were free-floating, but we were surprised at how easily they lifted up and pulled apart. By the time Carol arrived at noon, we had pulled up nearly half of the living room floor – Robert lifting the boards and me carrying them out the door.

Carol and I got to work emptying my waterbed, and soon we three had finished the living room and were able to move the bedroom furniture out and pull up the rest of the fake-wood flooring. I wanted to just throw out the laminate, but Carol and Robert convinced me to stack it carefully in the house to protect it from the elements until I figured out what to do with it.

By 1:45 p.m., we were done with the floors and having a lovely lunch on the back deck overlooking my little forest. I was amazed!

Lunch with Pearce.

But I had no idea what a cesspool of problems I’d released… On Monday morning I got a call from David Harlos, a PhD trained at the Harvard School of Public Health, who’d read my formaldehyde test results. “It’s a good thing you got that stuff out of your house – no wonder your dog is sick!”

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Nightmare on 21st Avenue