Wood and wellbeing: How wood panel products can affect indoor air quality

David Murray says it is imperative for product manufacturers to ensure all wood products destined for interior use be developed with zero added formaldehyde

David Murray, head of innovation and Ireland sales at Medite Smartply, discusses the role of wood panel products in the wellbeing of a building’s inhabitants.

In today’s environmentally conscious society, indoor air quality and creating safe, healthy environments through the use of the best building products and practice continues to be high priority on everyone’s agendas.

In the past, buildings were places where people simply lived and worked; now buildings are being designed to optimise and advance their occupants’ wellbeing.

A recent high-profile example is 22 Bishopsgate, the tallest building in London after the Shard, and the first UK shell and core office building to apply for the WELL Standard, demonstrating the growing understanding amongst construction industry professionals that the possibility of increasing wellbeing through a healthy workplace is more and more part of what makes a workplace desirable.

Clean air is a critical component of occupants’ health and wellbeing. Indoor air quality can be degraded by numerous factors including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted from building materials. Such gases can include formaldehyde, a carcinogen found in adhesives and resins used to bind most composite wood products.

At high concentrations, off-gassing formaldehyde from building products can lead to irritation of the nose and throat and has also been associated with respiratory disorders. People living and working in environments found to be of poor air quality are often advised to invest in air purifiers or keep the area well ventilated.

However, it’s arguable that it shouldn’t be left to the end-user of a home or office to take extra steps to ensure that the air quality of their everyday environment is as clear as it can be.

Environmental and wellbeing-focused building standards, such as The Well Standard, BREEAM, LEED and the Home Performance Index (HPI) encourage developers and construction professionals to build ‘healthy homes’ and workplaces that put the wellbeing of the end-user first, using sustainably produced products, by awarding credits and certifications for doing so.

This implies that it should be the responsibility of building product manufacturers and practicing architects to develop and design with the benefit of the end-user in mind.

A commonly used product for building fit-outs is medium density fibreboard (MDF). This dense, flat and stiff composite wood panel is consistent, easily machined, and highly versatile, making it a feature of numerous interior schemes and items of furniture.

Up until now though, it’s also been the subject of some bad press as some MDF’s are bound with formaldehyde-based resins. This can cause issues both when it’s cut, releasing irritant dust, or later on, as it may off-gas, releasing VOCs into the air. Formaldehyde is naturally present in wood at very low levels—this is harmless. The amplification of formaldehyde and other VOC levels through the addition of certain resins is what can cause problems and is why any architect looking specify an MDF for an interior fit out, and maintain a safe, clean air environment, should choose carefully.

The level to which MDF is actually used within modern building is extremely high, exactly because of its versatility, as well as its cost effectiveness. To replace it all with other materials could prove much more costly, time consuming or even damaging to the wider environment in other ways—for example, if plastics are used instead.

Instead of replacing a much relied on product with something else, the best and simplest solution is to develop this product into a version of itself that can do it all: meet our building needs, be produced sustainably and be a healthy addition to our indoor environments.

To address these concerns, it is imperative for product manufacturers to ensure all wood products destined for interior use, such as MDF, be developed with zero added formaldehyde, and for architects to help contribute to a healthier indoor environment by consciously choosing to specify them.

Of course, maintaining a low VOC level is important in any building, but in places such as schools, hospitals and care homes, it is especially vital for the wellbeing of the occupants that this be the case. Children, those who struggle with respiratory problems and the elderly can be considered especially sensitive to off-gassing VOC emissions, including those of formaldehyde.

Another sector that relies on zero added formaldehyde wood products is public arts and culture. Museums or galleries, home to countless examples of history and art, are responsible for their maintenance and preservation which is made difficult when their display cases are made from regular MDF made with added formaldehyde, as the off-gassing of VOCs will often contribute to artefact deterioration.

Although no wood product can be entirely formaldehyde-free, as it is naturally occurring, independent tests have shown that the formaldehyde content of specially manufactured MDF containing no added formaldehyde, or special ‘NAF’ products, is less than 1.0mg/100g: equivalent to the harmless levels found in wood in the natural world. Since the awareness of both indoor and outdoor environmental issues has risen amongst the general public, alongside concern for impacts on public health, the call for and popularity of NAF products has risen significantly. The knock-on effects of this is that now construction professionals and developers have even more opportunities to demonstrate their concern for their end-users and how they intend to prioritise building with their wellbeing in mind.

As important and keeping the indoor environment as clear and healthy as possible is contributing to the preservation of the environment outside.

When managed appropriately, timber is the only 100% fully sustainable construction material, with some timber panel manufacturers only using the thinnings of fast growing, sustainably managed forests to produce their panels.

‘Thinning’ as a forest management tool is effective, powerful and actually helps to promote tree growth and restore forest health. When thinning, foresters remove slower-growing or already naturally damaged or defective trees to provide more space for the remaining trees to grow and positively contribute to the environment.

Specifying a wood product from a manufacturer that sources all its timber from forests such as these, often FSC certified forests, is also encouraged by the BREEAM building standard, to better motivate construction professionals to help create a safer, healthier environment inside and out.

It’s important that as construction professionals we begin to make the conscious choice to build a better, safer future. So why not start with wood panel products? Let’s do the right thing.