Particle board is a wood product that combines wood waste such as wood chips, sawdust, and synthetic resin. They are also sometimes referred to as pressed particle boards.
Manufacturers create particle boards by layering different sizes of wood products. They fill the center of the board with large bits of wood waste while they fill the surrounding areas with varying, smaller sizes. Then, they bond the small sizes with resin made with urea formaldehyde. This method allows for smooth, better finishing. It can have a single layer or three layers.
We can use particle board to create furniture, interior wall lining, decorative panels, floor and roof decking, and so on. Unfortunately, particle board is a toxic product. This article explores the toxic substances we can find on a particle board and their effects on us.
Related: You might also like to read up on the environmental impact of construction and the built environment. We also explore natural buildings and their eco-friendly techniques.
Although a particle board is a product made from recycled wood particles, many particle board products contain a toxic chemical known as formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is an organic compound that is colorless but has a strong smell. We also know it as formalin or methyl aldehyde.
Formaldehyde is an active ingredient in the production of adhesives and formaldehyde resin. It’s effectively the glue that sticks particle boards together and is also found in building products such as oriented strand board, fiberboard, and laminate flooring. People also use it as a disinfectant and an embalming agent because of its ability to preserve tissues and cells.
Despite its many uses, formaldehyde has potential health hazards. It is also dangerous to the well-being of the environment. The United States National Toxicology Program stated that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Exposure to formaldehyde can occur through inhalation during production2 and from formaldehyde's thermal and chemical decomposition.
The materials used to produce many particle boards can cause major respiratory problems like asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. These problems result from inhaling a harmful chemical known as formaldehyde over a long period.
As we established earlier in the article, particle board is bad news because of urea formaldehyde. Initially, particle board was a cheap alternative to solid wood because it recycles sawdust and wood chips. However, manufacturers predominately use formaldehyde to hold it together.
We then use these boards as furniture and construction projects in our homes. People can experience eye and nasal irritation when exposed to formaldehyde. Its effects also depend on the amount of dosage exposed to us. Exposure to a low dosage of this toxic component can cause headaches, rhinitis, and dyspnea. In contrast, a higher dosage may lead to severe mucous membrane irritation, burning, lacrimation, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, or pneumonia.
If you are quite sensitive to formaldehyde chemicals, you are more likely to experience asthma and dermatitis. Apart from its disease registry, there's an increased risk of suffocation because of the heaviness of formaldehyde vapors in the air.
Formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, meaning that it can cause cancer. Using rats as test subjects, researchers found that formaldehyde caused nasal cancer in 1980. Their results begged the question, “does it lead to the development of cancer in humans”? In 1987, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that formaldehyde is a human carcinogen that occurs under high levels or prolonged exposure to the toxic chemical1.
The National Cancer Institute conducted several research programs to discover the relationship between cancer and formaldehyde. It most likely affects people who work with formaldehyde regularly and have increased exposure. The search results showed that people working with it are at a higher risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer than the general population.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer also classifies formalin as a carcinogen4. Their research found it also causes cancer of the nasal cavities, nasopharynx, and paranasal sinuses.
Using particle board as a construction material in your home can endanger your health because the formaldehyde in the particle board is off-gassing into the air. It takes years for all the chemicals to off-gas into the air. However, you have been inhaling all the formaldehyde emissions during this time, presenting multiple potential health risks.
Apart from its dangerous effect on us, particle board also affects the environment. The toxic materials in particle boards cause the most danger during their production and usage. Let’s examine the consequences of the environment’s exposure to formaldehyde.
Despite their eco-friendly features, manufacturing formaldehyde resin and particle board slates requires a lot of energy. It uses the same energy necessary to produce plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and other pressed wood products. The production process of a particle board requires heating and drying, which takes about 82% of the energy during production3.
Also, formaldehyde emissions enter the air and break down to form formic acid and carbon monoxide. If a particle board were to enter a water source5, like a river, resin chemicals would leech into the water. Then marine animals will ingest it, which affects their health by making them sick, losing their reproductive abilities, and shortening their lifespan.
We may not be able to escape formaldehyde completely. However, we can reduce its presence in our homes. Some experts claim that a wood product made with formaldehyde off-gasses, so a particle board will also off-gas into the air. The chemical slowly disperses when the wood products sit for a long period, possibly years.
However, we are uncertain whether formaldehyde fumes disappear entirely. It’s better to avoid all wood-pressed boards and opt for greener choices like solid wood for your construction and furniture projects. You should only choose particle boards with no formaldehyde resin content. Ask the wood vendor to tell you the type of glue used to bind it together.
Particle boards can be dangerous to our health if a formaldehyde component is used as a binder. Its carcinogenic nature may put us at risk of developing myeloid leukemia, nasal cancer, and other forms of cancer. It may also cause eye, nasal, and skin irritation. It is best to avoid using particle boards containing formaldehyde in the home.
Either buy particle boards from a manufacturer that doesn’t use formaldehyde substances or use solid timber for your furniture.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. Report to Congress on Indoor Air Quality, Volume II: Assessment and Control of Indoor Air Pollution, 1989.
Ki-Hyun Kim, Shamin Ara Jahan & Jong-Tae Lee (2011) Exposure to Formaldehyde and Its Potential Human Health Hazards, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part C, 29:4, 277-299, DOI: 10.1080/10590501.2011.629972
Energy conservation in the mechanical forest industries, Gordon-Pullar, I.T.; The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
IARC Classifies Formaldehyde as Carcinogenic. Oncology Times 26(13):p 72, July 10, 2004. | DOI: 10.1097/01.COT.0000292246.11180.99
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. (2022, June 30). Formaldehyde - DCCEEW.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.