The reclassification of formaldehyde by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “carcinogenic to humans” has triggered enormous concern globally. Office furniture is a functionally needed utility value, keeping in view the ergonomic design for good working conditions.

Good lighting and aesthetics enhance office interiors. One of the most neglected aspects in India is the awareness to keep the level of formaldehyde emissions to acceptable levels in office interiors. These are released from the furniture, more particularly from wood-based panels used in the fabrication of furniture, such as plywood, block board, particle board and medium density fibre board (MDF). Formaldehyde exposure potentially causes a variety of adverse health hazards, such as eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing and allergic reactions (see Table). Long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans. Formaldehyde can affect people differently. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde at a certain level, while others may not have any noticeable reaction to the same level. Formaldehyde levels in indoor air can vary depending on temperature, humidity and air exchange rate within the indoor space. In addition, several studies have shown that, in the presence of ozone, formaldehyde levels increase; therefore, the outdoor and indoor ozone levels are also relevant.

Formaldehyde levels in internal office spaces may change with the season, day-to-day, and day-to-night. Levels may be high on a hot and humid day and low on a cool, dry day.

Measuring formaldehyde emissions from individual consumer products is difficult because a variety of products in the office can release formaldehyde, or trap formaldehyde emitted from other sources. Products with greater emissions and larger surface areas in the office will most likely have agreater contribution to indoor air formaldehyde levels.

We keep this in mind when categorising different product types: Wood-based products: Pressed wood (hardwood plywood, particle board and MDF) especially those containing UF resins, may be a significant formaldehyde source.

Wallpaper/ paints: Moderate levels of formaldehyde are released initially after application. Some paints are now found with low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) formulations. Other materials: Formaldehyde can be created from the chemical reaction between ozone and other VOCs during the use of personal computers, laser printers and photocopiers. Re-emitters: Because they are porous, products such as carpets or gypsum board do not contain significant amounts of formaldehyde when new. However, they may trap formaldehyde that is emitted into the air from other products and later release it into the indoor air.

Formaldehyde exposure can cause a variety of symptoms and potential adverse health effects. A person’s ability to smell a chemical odor, such as formaldehyde, does not always mean that the levels of the chemical are of concern, or will cause an adverse health effect. Therefore, some people can smell formaldehyde before being adversely affected by it.

You can reduce exposure to high levels of formaldehyde by installing wood floors or finishes that are not ‘acidcured’, which is a type of finish that is formaldehyde-based. When installing pressed-wood products – such as particle board, MDF or hardwood plywood – for construction of office furniture and interiors, ensure that it is stamped in compliance with E1 emission norm at the most minimum.

Several safety standards are in currency across the globe, but the main ones are CARB (California Air Resources Board) P1&P2, the North American voluntary standards ANSI, the E2, E1 or E0 European emission standards (most imported products from Asia are E2 or worse), and the F-star emission standards set by the Japanese Industrial Standards. (See table for classification).

There are panel products even lower than E1 such as E0, or CARB P2 available in market. Attention and concern is required from all office furniture manufacturers to purchase wood panels having the minimum E1 certification for the safety and health concern of the people working in the office environment for which they supply the furniture made in their factories. Buyers also must make conscientious decisions while ordering furniture.

The writer is a well known figure in the world of panel products in India and abroad, having been in the business for several decades. His company, Sleek Boards (India) LLP, is one of the country’s leaders in marketing a variety of technologically advanced panel products.