California air regulators Thursday unanimously passed the world's toughest controls on toxic formaldehyde in wood products widely used in kitchen cabinets, countertops and other construction.
Environmentalists, public health advocates, and manufacturers and distributors of formaldehyde-free wood cheered the news.
Formaldehyde, widely used as a glue in wood veneer, plywood and other construction materials, has been shown to cause throat cancer, respiratory ailments and other problems.
The Air Resources Board vote limiting formaldehyde levels in wood products, which came after hours of testimony from all sides, was "a tremendous victory" for those who work with wood products, said Harry Demarest, chief executive of Columbia Forest Inc. of Portland, Ore., the largest manufacturer of veneer that uses soybean glue rather than formaldehyde.
"Formaldehyde is bad. We don't want it in our homes, and we don't want it in our stores. It is not healthy, believe me," said Valerie Cavazos, who handles sales at California Panel & Veneer Co. in Cerritos. The independent distributor has switched almost entirely to formaldehyde-free wood products, at the request of school districts and other large customers seeking environmentally friendly products.
But there was fierce debate about how the regulations, scheduled to be phased in between 2010 and 2011, would affect consumer prices.
California Air Resources Board staff said their research found it could cost as much as $6 more for a wood panel, but that would add just $400 to the cost of a new $500,000 home, or less than 1%.
But other wood industry and construction trade groups testified that the stricter limits could cause prices on wood products to skyrocket, possibly bankrupting cabinetmakers and other small businesses across the state.
Domestic manufacturers in particular fretted that overseas manufacturers would issue fraudulent paperwork saying the material met the standards, giving them an unfair advantage over local producers who could be more readily inspected. Countered Demarest of Columbia Wood: "We think the industry will be able to comply with no additional costs. We sell our product for the exact same cost" as veneer containing formaldehyde.
Cavazos, who has worked at California Panel & Veneer for 21 years, said she had suffered headaches and burning eyes from formaldehyde fumes. She thought the new regulations were a fine idea.
"They did it with all the other chemicals, so why not this?"
Scientists representing industry groups said there were conflicting studies on heath risks, and said the state's own estimates as well as national and international studies showed a tiny amount of cancer deaths, if any, would be avoided as a result of the regulations.
But Melanie Marti, chief epidemiologist for the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said there was no known safe threshold for formaldehyde exposure and that cancer risks from fumes in wood products would decline by 42% under the new caps.
Currently there are an estimated 86 to 231 such deaths annually; that would decrease by 35 to 97 deaths, state researchers found.
Major home improvement stores will be among those affected by the new rules. The Home Depot did not return requests for comment, but composite-wood manufacturers said the home improvement chain had recently announced it would abide by European standards allowing minuscule amounts of formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde in wood has been banned or tightly regulated in many countries, but in the United States its use is legal except in manufactured homes, and it is routinely crafted into cabinets and furniture.
California's new rules will require even lower levels than European and Asia standards.
"California will have the most stringent standard in the world for wood resin products," said Catherine Witherspoon, executive director of the state air board.