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Toxic Buildings

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Formaldehyde Laced Trailers? The Stuff Is Everywhere!

By James Donahue

The big brouhaha over the formaldehyde laced trailers furnished by FEMA for hurricane Katrina victim appears to be lot of noise over something the building industry, health officials and our government has been well aware of for a very long time.

Sure, those 50,000 quickly-assembled trailers gave the folks that moved into them a heavy dose of formaldehyde fumes leaching from the floors, carpeting, wallboards, kitchen cabinets and maybe even the paint and plastics used to assemble them. That was because they were rush ordered to fill a desperate need to house a lot of families left homeless by the storm.

It might have helped if the trailers had been equipped with ventilation systems that constantly moved fresh air through them, and if they had been allowed to remain empty for a few months after assembly, so the heavy volume of toxic fumes from the formaldehyde in the glues and other products could leach and get vented off before people moved in.

Most people think of formaldehyde as an embalming fluid. It is also used by hospitals and pathologists to preserve body parts. In addition to its preservation properties, formaldehyde is found to be a powerful and inexpensive resin and bonding agent for glue. This is why the building industry uses it extensively in building modern homes.

Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of carpeting, particle board, plywood, wall paneling, trim, two-by-fours, ceiling tile and even the paint on the walls. There are more and more artificial wood products on the market because there is a shortage of lumber for building new homes.

While working for a newspaper in Arizona some years back, I interviewed the manager of a large wood products facility on the Apache reservation. He was introducing a new method of making “perfect” two-by-fours out of wood chips. Using a special glue, the plant was turning big piles of sawdust, once considered waste, into solid wood products. All of the pieces, that also included boards paneling, were found stronger than conventional wood products, and they did not warp. Thus, this man boasted that his factory was making a better product at a lower cost. At the time we were not thinking about the formaldehyde used in the glue that went into this wonderful new product.

While researching this story, I was astounded to learn that formaldehyde is found in many products where we might least expect it. It is a combustion by-product found in cigarette and wood smoke, natural gas, kerosene and the exhaust from automobiles, incinerators and power plants.

You can find formaldehyde in urea-foam insulation, plywood, carpeting, paper products, cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos, fabric dyes and permanent press clothes, inks and disinfectants.  It is even used in air and carpet deodorizers.

There are especially high concentrations of formaldehyde in the walls, floors and furnishings in our homes. Wherever you find pressed board, particle board or plywood, you will find formaldehyde. And if you think it isn't present in your home, look closely at the doors. If you find that the outer finish is a thin veneer, be assured it is covering a large block of pressed or particle board. That new end table in your living room may also be filled with particle board. So are the kitchen cupboards, wood paneling on the walls, and the studs holding the wall in place. Your roof is probably made of plywood. All of it held together with glue made from formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a deadly toxin, a known carcinogen, that leaches from our homes and office buildings in the form of a gas. It seeps silently from the walls, furniture, doors, clothes, curtains and upholstery. It constantly fills the rooms with thin vapors of poison that in time, can kill you. In the meantime, it makes you sick.

When breathed into our lungs formaldehyde causes respiratory problems and eventually cancer of the upper respiratory tract and lungs. It is linked to asthma and other lung disorders. It causes rashes and skin disorders among some people who come in physical contact with it.

Exposure to formaldehyde is known to increase sensitivity to other irritants and chemicals, creating allergies that did not exist prior to exposure. For some people, exposure to formaldehyde creates a permanent impairment to their health.

Symptoms of low-level exposure to formaldehyde include runny nose, sore throat, cough, dermatitis, sleeping disorders, headache, fatigue, breathing difficulties, sinus irritation, chest pain, nausea, bronchitis and decreased lung capacity. Acute exposure can cause abdominal pain, anxiety, coma, convulsions, diarrhea, bronchitis, phenomena and pulmonary edema.

Formaldehyde breaks down in the body to become carbon monoxide. The first symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is a severe headache, followed by death. Carbon monoxide is the same stuff that comes out of the tail pipe of your car as you drive down the road. Everybody knows that stuff is deadly.

With so much formaldehyde used in the building materials going into newly constructed houses and office buildings, it should be no surprise that the incidence of "sick houses," or buildings where people cannot live without being sick, is on the increase.

Of course the cause of this problem, like nearly all of the problems faced by people on this planet, has its roots in overpopulation. We have resorted to this kind of building material because we are running out of trees and natural products with which to build our homes. And for some strange reason, we think a century old building in our neighborhood, which is made of solid hardwood, has outlived its usefulness. We have a tendency to bulldoze these fine old structures into rubble and haul the debris off to the local landfill. Every time we do this, we destroy fine pieces of solid oak, black walnut, maple, cherry, white pine and other lumber than can no longer be bought at any price.