Formaldehyde exposure grabbed recent media attention because of air quality problems associated with FEMA trailers, but Mississippi State University researchers have been addressing these concerns for years by investigating new materials and detection methods.
About 29,000 FEMA trailers still house Gulf Coast residents displaced three years ago when Hurricane Katrina struck. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported formaldehyde levels nearly 40 times higher than normal in some of the trailers because of materials used in their manufacture.
Formaldehyde is a chemical compound found in many products, so people have a hard time escaping some level of exposure. It can be released as gas from plastics, foams, vinyl tile, carpet, upholstered furniture and some wood composites. Formaldehyde also is contained in gas that causes the 'new car smell' in vehicles.
Toxic levels of formaldehyde can cause respiratory trouble, headaches, nose-bleeds and a host of potentially long-term health problems. Additionally, some individuals are sensitive to relatively low levels of the compound.
"Years of research and testing related to composite panel products have yielded significantly reduced formaldehyde emission levels and have helped tighten up air pollution quality standards," said Rubin Shmulsky, head of the MSU Department of Forest Products.
Scientists in MSUís Forest and Wildlife Research Center are developing formaldehyde-free adhesives for composite wood products such as plywood and particleboard. Their work is helping ensure that composite panels are not a significant source of formaldehyde gas in homes.
"A patent is pending on a resin developed by MSU scientists that produces 80 percent less formaldehyde emissions and has similar cost, strength and durability," Shmulsky said.
MSU scientists also have assisted in development of a low cost, real-time sensor that detects formaldehyde and other chemicals in the air.
"Since 1990, MSU scientists have contributed to federal standards that address methods for measuring formaldehyde and other chemicals emitted from wood products," said Leonard Ingram, MSU forest products professor. "We were one of the first universities to demonstrate the use of a pilot-scale kiln for effectively measuring volatile organic compounds. This equipment has become a federally recognized and acceptable means of pollution measurement."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based its standards on formaldehyde exposure in part on MSU studies, he added.
The investigation on ways to improve indoor air quality in homes is a collaborative effort of the Southern Climatic Housing Coalition. The coalition includes MSUís College of Forest Resources; Bagley College of Engineering; College of Architecture, Art and Design; and the Department of Landscape Architecture, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
The program includes a demonstration house that highlights methods of design and construction to improve indoor air quality, reduce energy consumption and increase durability.
"For many individuals along the Gulf Coast, the issue of airborne formaldehyde is a focal point of life," Shmulsky said. "We hope there is some level of comfort in knowing that our efforts are working directly toward addressing indoor air quality to protect the health and well- being of Mississippians and others today and well into the future."