What ingredients are lurking in your new cabinets?
By Catherine Weiland
Planning a new kitchen is exciting and, at times, daunting. Improving the functionality and beauty of a space is great but, as anyone with chemical sensitivities can attest, all those new fittings — especially new cabinets — have a potential impact on indoor air quality and, in turn, your health.
Like food, cabinet health considerations stem from their ingredient list: composite wood, wood, metal, glues and coatings. For some cabinets, the ingredient list expands to include edge-banding, veneers, thermofoil and laminates. However, the two most common ingredients with potential impact on human health are wood composites and coatings.
Wood Composites and your Health
Most manufactured kitchen cabinetry — cabinetry that is made in a factory and is designed specifically for the kitchen — is made with composite wood. The doors, drawers and face frames may be solid wood, but the box is usually made of composite wood. “Composite” wood comprises a broad category of modified wood (e.g., thin sheets or wood fibers) that is bound with glue. Composite wood includes plywood and particleboard, both of which are used to make cabinet boxes because they are more dimensionally stable and stronger than wood.
Historically, urea formaldehyde (UF) was used in the glue that binds composite wood. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services named UF a known human carcinogen, and significant federal regulation to limit UF emissions followed. Today, all composite wood products, including American-made and imported, must comply with strict UF emissions limits and compliance must be third-party certified. That is encouraging. Yet, it is important to consider what replaced UF adhesives.
There are four alternatives to UF adhesives on the composite wood market today:
1) Modified UF. This solution uses additives to reduce emissions. Products made with modified urea formaldehyde still off-gas formaldehyde over long periods of time, but at lower levels. Yet according to HomeFree, an initiative of the Healthy Building Network to raise awareness about toxic building materials and the associated health hazards, the efficacy of the additives may be diminished by hot temperatures or high humidity. So, a consistent reduction in UF exposure is not guaranteed.
2) Alternate formaldehyde resins, such as phenol formaldehyde. According to the Healthy Building Network, this type of formaldehyde off-gasses almost exclusively at time of manufacture (rather than in your home), resulting in 90% fewer formaldehyde emissions than urea formaldehyde. However, it is still listed as a suspected immunotoxi- cant by the NIH’s Database on Hazardous Chemicals and Occupational Diseases.
3) Fossil fuel-based binders such as methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). According to the EPA, “The carcinogenicity of MDI cannot be determined, but there is suggestive evidence that raises concern for carcinogenic effects.” While this option may not off-gas UF, it is not necessarily healthier.
4) Alternate binders based on renewable resources such as soy protein. These soy-based adhesives have proven to be both water-resistant and strong enough to hold up in industrial applications, according to research conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a division of the National Institute for Health). This option is exciting because it offers a solution that is both renewable and does not release formaldehyde emissions. Yet, it is more ex- pensive than other alternatives.
With so many alternatives to UF, it can be difficult to know what you are buying. Start by asking your cabinet retailer. If they don’t know, ask them find out from the cabinet manufacturer.
Cabinet Coatings and your Health
Cabinet coatings consist of the stain or paint that is applied to improve durability and achieve a desired style. Prior to application, coatings are in liquid form. Once applied, part of the coating adheres to the cabinet to become the final finish, while the rest evaporates into the air. Solvent-based coatings are the go-to finish for kitchen cabinet manufacturers because they offer faster drying time, more stable drying conditions, durability, and a desirable finish. The problem with solvent-based coatings is that they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during evaporation that, according to the American Lung Association, can produce a number of physical problems. VOC levels are much higher indoors than outdoors and are 1,000 times higher immediately following application.
Beyond indoor air, solvent-based VOCs, once airborne, can combine to create ozone, a major component of smog.
Water-borne coatings offer a healthier option because they emit fewer, if any, VOCs. If you are concerned about air quality, you may want to look for cabinetry with water-borne finishes. Relatively few cabinet companies have made the leap to water-borne coatings, but they do exist and can be affordable.
All Pure Kitchen and Executive Cabine- try products (with exception of Executive’s crackle finish) feature waterborne coatings. And Crystal Cabinetworks offers a subset of products that use waterborne coatings. Also, most of Executive Cabinetry’s line is GREENGUARD Gold certified for indoor air quality. All of these lines are available in Maine. Forevermark cabinetry, an online- only retailer of ready-to-assemble cabinets, also uses water-borne finishes.
One thing to understand about these finishes is that they do not yet have the same long-lasting finish durability as their solvent- based counterparts. If you have a large family of young kids and you really (ab)use your kitchen, a water-based finish may not stand the test of time, but you will rest easy knowing your family is being exposed to healthier products. Like many products, today’s options are markedly healthier that those made just a decade ago. With a little research, you can find a product that you feel good about having in your healthy home.
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