When shopping for wood furniture, floors, or other home furnishings, you might see that some of the real bargains are made from MDF board. So what is MDF board? MDF, which stands for “medium-density fiberboard,” looks like real wood cut straight from a tree, but is actually recycled pieces of wood pressed together with adhesive under conditions of high temperature and heat.
MDF board has many benefits besides the low cost. For one, it’s stronger than particle board (which is made from compressed sawdust) and is often made with a veneer to create the look of a solid wood board.
Compared with hardwood, MDF is lighter, the chemicals within repel termites, and it doesn’t warp much in humid weather. All in all, it’s a cheap, sturdy, low-maintenance middle ground in the world of wooden home furnishings. However, it has recently come under fire (more on that next).
Health issues with MDF board
MDF board is raising some health concerns because it’s made with an adhesive containing urea-formaldehyde (or urea-methanal formaldehyde), which “off-gasses” into its surroundings. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that high levels of this formaldehyde can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Worse yet, it estimates that high exposure levels could increase your lifetime risk of getting cancer, with an anticipated 6 to 30 extra cases for every 100,000 people per year.
Because of the health hazards MDF presents, the U.S. government passed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act in 2010, which sets limits on how much formaldehyde home products can contain—in this case, a max of 0.11 ppm (parts per millions). Europe’s formaldehyde standard is higher, at 0.07 ppm, and the California Air Resources Board set its standard higher still, at 0.05 ppm.
How to tell if your furniture is made from MDF
While MDF mimics real wood, there are ways to tell the difference if you examine it closely. For instance, although MDF might have what looks like a natural grain, it might feel unusually smooth; or if you spot a repeating grain pattern, that’s a dead giveaway it’s fake. Real wood furniture will often have a notched construction for the joints (see below); MDF will not.
When in doubt, you can test the board with a DIY formaldehyde testing kit, available at many home improvement stores.
Photo by NePalo Cabinetmakers
Should you avoid furniture made with MDF board?
“When looking for furniture, I always advise my client to check the ingredients list just as they would for the food they eat,” says wellness architect Pippa Lee. She recommends choosing wood furniture with labels saying it’s certified by the Forest Steward Council and that uses adhesives with some sort of green certification. Based on her research, Lee also thinks plywoods made with phenol formaldehyde resin, which may off-gas less than MDF furniture, could be another decent alternative.
If the furniture has MDF, the label should at least say it’s below limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, in which case the label should read: “TSCA Title VI Compliant.” While the jury is still out on what levels of MDF, if any, are safe, Lee recommends avoiding MDF wood whenever possible.
“Put simply, there is no good way to have urea-formaldehyde in your life,” she says.
Another silver lining to this potentially toxic material? MDF board doesn’t off-gas indefinitely. As time goes on, the chemicals released drop off. While the length of off-gassing varies widely, if you’ve had the furnishings for two years, it has probably stopped off-gassing by now.
But if you’ve just brought new MDF furnishings or flooring into your home, what then? Don’t scrap it just yet. Here are some suggestions for lowering your exposure.
- Store brand-new furniture outdoors (or out of indoor living spaces) until it no longer smells.
- When possible, open your windows to allow airflow.
- Keep your home cool and dry, as higher temperatures and humidity will increase off-gassing.
- There are some sealants that can help block toxic gases. However, you can apply them only to exposed edges where the pressed wood is visible.
- Definitely avoid cutting or sanding MDF furniture, as this will release particles of formaldehyde into the air.
At the very least, pay close attention to your health whenever you bring MDF board into your home; some people are more sensitive to chemicals than others. If you notice an increase in headaches or respiratory problems, it might be time to dig deeper into whether MDF is the problem, and remove the items to see if your symptoms improve.
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