The Surprising Health Benefits of Green Cabinets

healthy cabinets

While the environmental benefits of "green" cabinets are well-known -- a smaller carbon footprint and more sustainable wood harvesting techniques -- you may not know that green cabinets can also provide substantial health benefits. Many standard cabinets are made from materials -- wood, glue, and paint or stain -- that contain urea formaldehyde (UF). UF occurs in nature and can give off -- or "outgas" -- unhealthy fumes. Formaldehyde fumes are thought to be cancer-causing agents as well as the contributors to various other health conditions.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) warns that "inhaling VOCs can cause eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headaches, allergic skin reactions, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, fatigue and dizziness." People with asthma and other allergies can be especially sensitive to formaldehyde gas at higher concentrations (above 0.1 parts per million).

Consumers and the federal government are taking notice of the issue---and the result has been a trend toward healthier cabinet components, such as natural hardwoods. At the same time, environmentally conscious consumers also want to use woods that are grown and harvested sustainably. While there is no universal definition of a "green" cabinet, there are many options available that are "gentle on both the indoor and outdoor environment," says Eric Wallace of OGB Architectural Millworks, a cabinet company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Many cabinets today are built and installed using waste materials or sustainably harvested materials [that are] UF free."

Whose Health is at Risk?

Portland, Oregon-based Neil Kelly Cabinets, which has been building "green" cabinets for about 10 years is well ahead of the trend. "The demand for green cabinets has been coming from a variety of sources, such as people with chemical allergies or sensitivities, those who want to improve the air quality in their homes for themselves or their children, and some who are just eco-conscious" says a Neil Kelly spokesperson.

While it is difficult to pin down the nature of the risk, UF offgassing can continue after cabinets are installed. However, sealing the surface, especially with a "green" or water-based paint or finish, can help contain the offgassing.

Sealing the wood has proven to reduce offgassing's health risks. "It's been common since the early '90s for wood to be totally encapsulated by a plastic that's vacuum-sealed to the product," says Tom Neltner, an attorney, chemical engineer and co-chair of the Sierra Club's National Toxics Committee. The formaldehyde will still come out, but more slowly, over a longer period of time.

Todd Vogelsinger of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Columbia Wood Products, which uses soy flour-based PureBond technology in its products, says the "easy answer" is that "offgassing is always strongest at the beginning of a composite wood panel's lifecycle, so people who work in the proximity of fresh new wood panels [shops] are probably more likely to experience the fumes than others."

Risk can also vary depending on climate zone or weather conditions: "While the release of formaldehyde goes down over time, high humidity and temperatures make the emissions occur faster," Neltner says.

What's Being Done About It

According to Dale Kemery, a press officer in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Media Relations in Washington, DC, the EPA "plans to issue an advance notice of proposed rule-making to initiate a proceeding to investigate whether and what type of regulatory or other action might be appropriate to protect against risks posed by formaldehyde emitted from pressed-wood products. The EPA has consulted with other federal agencies on this action. We anticipate that it will come out later this fall."

Much of the EPA's attention to this issue originated with the Sierra Club, which launched a Formaldehyde Campaign in response to the UF offgassing concerns of people living in US government-issed trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed their homes in 2005. Says Becky Gillette, chair of the campaign, "Clearly, it is far past time for a formaldehyde fix in this country. We've known for decades how toxic formaldehyde can be, and now it is time to resolve this problem once and for all."

Nelter says that "people can have acute allergic responses to even a little amount of urea formaldehyde." There are some standards for wood, being driven by regulations from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of composite wood products, such as particle board, medium-density fiberboard or some types of plywood, but the glue holding the pieces of such products is the problem, Neltner says. The new rule forces manufacturers to use different types of glues and to cure--or allow to dry out better--wood products to reduce emissions.

Starting January 1, 2009, woods will have CARB labels so consumers can ask if a product has been CARB-compliant, even if the label has been covered up. Regulations will get more stringent gradually through 2012.

"There really aren't any standards out there for cabinets except for workers [who build them]," says Neltner. "As I understand it, most U.S. producers are almost all already there. The problem is that imported materials are not in compliance. We want the California standards to be adopted nationally. We want to see legislation or rules to protect all Americans, not just Californians, and that's a priority for us."

What Does It Mean For You?

The search for a source of healthier and more environmentally friendly cabinets is making a big impact on the industry. Nationwide companies are scrambling to be in compliance with the California law, which limits the amount of formaldehyde used in wood products, says Brent Ehrlich, product editor for Building Green. This has made it much easier to find panels that are low on formaldehyde.

As with anything else, the more specialized or exotic the cabinet material, the more expensive it will be, and members of the industry agree that green cabinets can cost more. But, adds cabinet manufacturer Wallace, "Particleboard with no added UF has dropped in price a lot. Bamboo plywood is still expensive, and Dow stopped manufacturing its 'Woodstalk' brand wheatboard about two years ago, but two smaller manufacturers have picked up the slack."

"You may pay a price premium for green cabinets, but not all are especially expensive," said Ehrlich. If they are, it's often because "the people who make high-end cabinets gravitate toward green building because they really care about what they make--they're artists in their field." And if you use a local cabinetmakers, you reduce the carbon footprint by decreasing the amount and distance of shipping involved for most woods.

Shopping For Green Cabinets

What should you look for when buying green cabinets? According to GreenBuilder magazine, "Formaldehyde-free box material [the actual sides and pieces of the cabinet] is the minimum.... Cabinet doors should either be built entirely from hardwood or have a hardwood frame with a veneered, formaldehyde-free center panel."

Generally, the more hardwood involved--rather than composites--the better off you'll be. But Building Green's Ehrlich warns, "These products don't exist in a vacuum. You have to look at what goes into them. We prefer to see something certified by the Forest Stewardship Council -- woods from sustainable forests, harvested using good forestry practices, rather than by clear-cutting."

Erlich also urged consumers to look for water-based glue and finishes made without formaldehyde, and to ask for cabinets made of agrifibers. "We really like wheatboard, which is renewable and has a smaller carbon footprint than many wood products."

Other products to look for include bamboo -- which renews itself quickly, grows easily and fast in much of the United States, and requires no watering and little rainfall -- and lyptus, a hybrid eucalyptus from South America that is fast-growing -- harvestable in 15 years, instead of the usual 30 or 40 -- and grows back from a stump, rather than having to be replanted.

With today's advances in wood- and cabinet-production technology, you may find that your "green" dollar not only helps the environment, but keeps you and your family a little healthier as well.