Formaldehyde Council recommends testing homes for formaldehyde

August 25, 2009

The Formaldehyde Council, Inc. (FCI) engaged an industrial hygienist to explain formaldehyde testing methods. Larry Newton, CIH, CSP, has performed over 400 indoor air quality investigations.

Newton expressed concern that some modern homes do not bring in adequate fresh air. He agreed with our statement, “lack of fresh air allows chemical contaminants to concentrate inside the home”.

Newton explained how he tested homes for formaldehyde in the 1980s.

When I began indoor investigations, I used a CEA 555 continuous environmental analyzer (CEA) based on the wet chemistry of pararosaniline. This chemistry is highly specific and sensitive (< 100 ppb) to formaldehyde…The CEA 555 monitor not only allowed me to obtain real-time ambient formaldehyde concentrations I was able to sniff out sources by placing the probe between walls; inside cabinets and drawers; beneath the floor; and at surfaces of suspected emitters. Whenever possible, I used the chromotropic acid method as my referee method. You used your Interscan 4160 in the same manner I did.

Technology has progressed in the decades since Newton measured formaldehyde in homes. The Interscan 4160 formaldehyde meter is considerably more accurate than the CEA 555. Sample collection for laboratory analyses is simpler than in the old days.

We used the Interscan 4160 extensively to confirm that many new homes have elevated formaldehyde in room air. Our data indicate that well-sealed homes are more likely to concentrate formaldehyde, just as Newton expected.

The Interscan 4160 serves well to locate formaldehyde sources in homes where clients are ill. As Newton recommended, we use the Interscan 4160 to identify cabinets, furniture items, and building materials that emit formaldehyde.

The Interscan 4160 is a direct read meter that measures concentration in air. It does not provide a written record of test results. We recommend laboratory analysis when clients are preparing for litigation.

A South Bay woman had health problems soon after her kitchen cabinets were refaced. She suspected formaldehyde from the MDF facing material was responsible for her illness. However, her contractor was adversarial and refused to replace the material that made her ill.

The Interscan 4160 confirmed the facing material emitted considerable formaldehyde. A lab test confirmed the formaldehyde concentration in the woman’s kitchen was high enough to make her ill. Combining the two test methods, she has adequate evidence to support her suit against the recalcitrant contractor.

August 24, 8:24 AM San Jose Environmental Health Examiner Linda Kincaid, MPH, CIH

Remodeling and Indoor Air Quality

August 21, 2009

You may not have realized that your remodeling project may be creating unhealthy indoor environment. These 8 questions and answers will help you understand the possible concerns of a remodeling and your indoor air quality.

Q 1: What remodeling hazards should I be concerned about?

A: Asbestos, formaldehyde and other organic solvents, and leaded paint dust are the main ones. These hazardous materials can be released into the air when you remove paint, hang cabinets or disturb other existing products that contain these materials. Paints, stripping and finishing products, and adhesives can also create indoor air pollution.

Q 2: By remodeling with products that don’t include these hazardous materials, won’t that minimize my exposure?

A: Not necessarily. Lead and asbestos were commonly used in home building until the late 1970s. Remodeling or attempting to remove these materials from a building can actually increase your risk of exposure. Often it’s better to leave the lead- or asbestos-containing materials in place, but cover or seal them to reduce exposure. If you suspect these materials are in your home, seek professional help before remodeling. If you remodel, remember that careful clean-up is important to control exposure.

Q 3: What does asbestos come from? Why should I be concerned?

A: Major sources of asbestos are deteriorating, damaged or disturbed asbestos-containing insulation, fireproofing or acoustical materials, and floor tiles. In isolated cases, asbestos could be found in vermiculite attic insulation. Exposure to asbestos in the air during renovation or maintenance on asbestos containin gmaterials may cause irritation reactions. Asbestos can also cause cancer and chronic lung diseases. Smokers are at higher risk of developing asbestos-induced lung doseases. If you need to work on or remove asbestos containing materials, use a professionally certified contractor.

Q 4: What should I do if I have vermiculite attic insulation?

A: According tothe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations, DO NOT DISTURB IT. Any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air. Limiting the number of trips you make to your attic and shortening the length of those trips can help limit your potential exposure. EPA and ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) strongly recommend that: Vermiculite insulation be left undisturbed in your attic. Due to the uncertainties with existing testing techniques, it is best to assume that the material may contain asbestos. Limit trips to the attic,if possible. You should not store boxes or other items in you attic if retrieving the material will disturb the insulation. Children should not be allowed to play in an attic with open areas of vermiculite insulation. If you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite, hire professionals trained and certified to handle asbestos to safely remove the material. You should never attempt to remove the insulation yourself. Hire professionals trained and certified to safely remove the materials.

Q 5: What does formaldehyde come from? Why should I be concerned?

A: Formaldehyde is an important industrial chemical used to make other chemicals, building materials and household products. It is used in glues, pressed-wood products (such as plywood and particle oard), preservtives, permanent presss fas a preservative or as an adhesive in pressed wood products, such as paneling and particle-board, and furniture. Formaldehyde causes eye, nose and throat irritations; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rashes; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidneys and the central nervous system; and severe allergic reactions. It has been linked to cancer.

Q 6: How can I detect whether myhome has significant concentrations of formaldehyde?

A: You may be able to detect it by its odor. Also, environmential testing firms, listed in the yellow pages of the phone directory, should be able to test for formaldehyde levels. Since such tests are costly, you should learn whether your home has possible sources of formaldehyde. Also, do-it-yourself test kits are available, but there is some question about their accuracy.

Q 7: What can I do to reduce formaldehyde problems?

A: In most cases, formaldehyde does not penetrate completely sealed plastic laminate and is at least partly blocked by coatings. Varnishes and special formaldehyde sealants are also available. Apply these coatings to all exposed edges and surfaces, such as the undersides of countertops, cabinet interiors and drawers. High humidity and elevated temperatures cause formaldehyde release, so you might want to control humidity through air conditioning and properly used and maintained dehumidifiers. Also, increase ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home. When remodeling and in new construction, select low formaldehyde materials.

Q 8: What about other chemicals used in remodeling, such as paints, wood strippers and finishes, adhesives, waxes and cleaners?

A: The products to watch for are those containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. Some may be flammable. Following are some of the compounds listed on product labels: petroleum distillates, mineral spirits, chlorinated solvents, carbon tetrachloride, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, toluene and formaldehyde. Other remodeling products can be a hazard if they are used improperly.

Houseplants and Indoor Air Quality, Fact or Fiction?

August 21, 2009

I should start by saying that I really do love a houseplant and there was a time when my home resembled a jungle.  I also noticed that it was increasingly difficult to maintain so many houseplants properly.  As time went on the number of houseplants was reduced slowly but surely as attrition took over and the little air scrubbers past away from lack of care.  I don’t recall the air quality as being better or worse to be honest but I do know that if I knew then what I know now I would have helped with the attrition.  I will get to that in a minute after we review what the EPA and NASA have to say about this touchy subject.

First the EPA acknowledges that over the past few years there has been some publicity suggesting that houseplants have been shown to reduce levels of some chemicals in laboratory experiments.  The EPA also points out that there is currently no evidence, however, that a reasonable number of houseplants remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices.
The EPA also makes sure to remind us that Indoor houseplants should not be over-watered because overly damp soil may promote the growth of microorganisms which can affect allergic individuals.  I know you already want to jump ahead but let’s see what NASA has to say first.  Be patient.

They report that the foliage of indoor houseplants is capable of removing low levels of pollution; while the roots, assisted by activated carbon filters, removed air pollutants at higher concentrations.  In these tests NASA reports that these filters removed and biologically degraded pollutants before they accumulated.

I am clearly not a NASA scientist so it’s easy to see why I have trouble wrapping my mind around why the activated carbon filter assisted houseplants that remove biological pollutants aren’t listed as activated carbon filter assisted houseplants as opposed to just houseplants.  One would think that activated carbon filter assisted houseplants is truly much more NASA than just plain old houseplants, right?

Regardless of my humble opinion and inability to comprehend the forgotten role of the activated carbon filters and the whole controlled environment issues here is NASA’s list of the top house houseplants that were most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide. (I’ll have to get back to you on where to purchase the activated carbon filters)
Bamboo palm
Chinese evergreen
English ivy
Gerbera daisy
“Janet Craig” Dracaena
Dracaena “Marginata”
Corn plant
While NASA is making us aware that houseplants are great at filtering out contaminants and adding oxygen back into the air, they seem to leave out the carbon assisted filters role, and that all of their testing was conducted in small controlled environment of a test chamber.  They also neglected to point out that to be effective at the lowest levels of any measured improvement NASA recommends 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants in 6 to 8-inch diameter containers for an average 1,800 square foot house.

John R. Griman (Chief of the Analysis Branch at EPA’s Indoor Air Division) calculates that at the most favorable conditions, it would take 680 plants in a typical house to achieve the same pollutant removal rate NASA reported they achieved in their test chamber.

Many of you may think that I am splitting hairs here but I’d like to share the findings that I’ve documented over the years.  I have conducted my share of indoor air quality assessments in homes and offices and prefer to document the temperature, humidity, particle levels, and any contributors to these areas such as aquariums, pets, those cute little water falls, and yes houseplants. 

There are many other contributors to elevated humidity and particle levels but the patterns of elevated humidity and particle levels are far too often found in homes and offices with several houseplants.  I have had several clients tell me that the large number of houseplants in their home or office was to them help improve their indoor air quality.  Then why call me?  I guess the plants just really weren’t helping. 

Would you believe that my first recommendation was to remove the houseplants? Well it was.  Would you believe that the air quality as monitored over the next few weeks was drastically improved?  Well it was.  Okay we implemented other means of improving the indoor air quality; I just thought I would file those with NASA’s activated carbon filters.

The truth is that I more often than not find houseplants over watered and often even dead and forgotten.  In many offices houseplants are the responsibility of the custodial service.  I’ve found that these individuals that are hired to maintain the houseplants are rarely trained on the frequency or correct amount of water to provide the plants. 

The improvement of indoor air quality is a reduction of airborne and settled particles and the elimination of environments that can support microbial growth and/or areas that may contribute to the airborne and settled particle levels of the indoor environment.  This would include children and pets, I’m kidding.  Children and pets are huge contributors to poor indoor air quality but we would never consider getting rid of them, would we?

Houseplants on the other hand can be a major contributor to poor indoor air quality simply because most of us will never care for our houseplants as a NASA scientists care for their houseplants during experiments.   This I have found to be very consistent in my field assessments.  A few well maintained houseplants are a great asset to any indoor environment but as few as one poorly maintained houseplant can be to sole source of poor indoor air quality. 

As for houseplants improving the indoor air quality of an indoor environment such as a home or office, I haven’t found that environment in any of my assessments over the years, not yet anyway.  I believe that far too many houseplants would be necessary to have a measured improvement in indoor air quality.  I also believe that the amount of time it would take to care for that many houseplants sways the pendulum back to the side of source rather than solution. 

I just haven’t found that houseplants can improve indoor air quality in a real world indoor environment.  I do find houseplants often poorly maintained and the source of poor indoor air quality in indoor environments.  So I would have to vote fiction on this one.

Enjoy your houseplants but please maintain them properly. 

John P. Lapotaire, CIEC
Microshield Environmental Services, LLC.

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