Pressed-wood products--from furniture to cabinets--are sold just about everywhere. But they’re not necessarily the safest options. Frequently they’re made with wood containing a urea formaldehyde (UF) binder (that’s glue to you non-construction types). Unfortunately UF has been linked to health issues ranging from persistent eye and skin irritation to asthma to cancer (in extremely high levels). UF doesn’t just stay put inside of furniture because it’s a volatile organic compound (VOC)—it escapes over time as gas which we then breathe.
UF is more stringently regulated in Europe, Japan, and Canada than it is stateside. In the U.S., The United States Green Building Council awards LEED credits for buildings that have eliminated added UF. In 2009, California passed an act mandating a reduction in formaldehyde levels in composite wood products like particleboard, hardwood plywood, and medium-density fiberboard.
All wood has trace amounts of formaldehyde naturally, which is why the focus is on added UF. By selecting natural woods or fiberboards made without UF, you minimize exposure to this indoor air contaminant.
When shopping for furniture, ask if the wood is pure/hard or fiberboard or a pressed wood. If it’s the latter, it probably contains UF unless it’s specifically being sold as UF-free.
Remember even upholstered furniture can contain pressed wood. Seek out hard wood frames.
Some pressed wood furniture sold in the U.S. is manufactured following a foreign standard, possibly reducing the amount of UF in it. IKEA, for example, says they adhere to the stricter German standard.