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Sealing Toxic Particleboard Furniture

Question from P. N.

I have a crazy situation. I put a $500.00 deposit down on some furniture I love, but found out it’s wood veneer over fiber-board. I’ve been agonizing for a week whether to have it delivered or if I should lose my deposit, or at least some of it. My chiropractor muscle-tested me weak on formaldahyde, so it wouldn’t be a great thing, but it was on sale for a really good price, it looks great, it’s what I need, but I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to feel hypocritical.

I found this stuff called Safe Coat which is supposed to stop most of the out-gassing but my friend says it will just slow it. Do you have any advice?

Debra’s Answer

About your furniture, I’ve used the product you mentioned. The exact product is called Safecoat Safe Seal, which is specifically designed to block formaldehyde emissions from particleboard. Not all Safecoat brand products have this ability, so be sure to get this specific product.

My experience using this product was similar to yours. Many years ago, I purchased an inexpensive dining table to use for a desk that I thought was all solid wood. When I got it home and started putting it together, I found that one essential piece on the underside was particleboard. I really needed a desk and this was the only wood table I had found that I could afford. But the smell of formaldehyde was clearly present.

So I got some Safecoat Safe Seal and completely sealed that one piece of particleboard. There was no more odor of formaldehyde and I was able to work at that desk with no reaction.

Your friend is partially right. My best recommendation is to use solid wood. The sealant will block enough formaldehyde fumes to form an effective barrier, but the particleboard beneath it will continue to outgas behind the barrier of the sealant. Over time, it may need to be reapplied. Multiple coats would give you a more complete seal. I think I applied two or three coats it was twenty years ago!.

Now, about whether you should follow through with the purchase for the reasons you stated…Even if it looks great, it’s what you need and you would lose your deposit, I wouldn’t go through with such a purchase if I knew it would harm my health. If it does affect your health, it will cost much more than your deposit to recover your health, and you will need to get rid of it anyway.

I once had a situation where I was working in a doctor’s office who treated patients who were chemically sensitive. He moved into a new office and needed to put down new flooring. I chose a flooring for him that was nontoxic, but his wife, who had an eye for decorating, wanted a different floor–one she chose for style, not safety. Well, being a good husband, he followed his wife’s advice and installed 2000 square feet of vinyl flooring. The following week he had to rip it out and install the flooring I recommended because none of his patients could come in the office! So it’s better to do it right the first time.

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Types of Wood Flooring

Question from R. W.

We want to replace carpeting in our daughter’s bedroom. She is chemically sensitive and so we were comparing prefinished wood flooring with laminate wood flooring. At our local Lowe’s store we saw Bruce wood floor and a Pergo laminate. Is the laminate more toxic than the wood ? We hope to use a kind that needs neither gluing or nailing. The laminate is thicker for about the same price. Would it be more toxic?

We have also found an engineered hardwood Bruce flooring that does not require nailing or gluing. Since it is engineered, does that present any outgassing problems? Also if it requires laying foam underneath, would that present a challenge to the chemically sensitive since it would be sealed under the flooring?

Debra’s Answer

I went down to my local Lowe’s and looked at all of these floorings.

First, let’s just clear up what all these different types of flooring are.

Solid wood flooring is one piece of wood top to bottom. Generally it is nailed to a wood subfloor. Most prefinished solid wood flooring I’ve seen has been nontoxic–the finish is applied at the factory and baked on.

Engineered flooring is made up of layers of wood stacked and glued under heat and pressure. It can be installed over most subfloors. The Bruce engineered flooring 6626 I examined at Lowe’s just smelled like wood to me. It did not seem especially toxic. Some engineered floors require plastic foam installed underneath. I wasn’t able to find out what type of plastic is used to make the foam underlayment. While it didn’t seem particularly toxic in the store, I’ve had experiences in the past where people purchased flooring thinking it was safe from a small sample, only to find that a roomful or a houseful was pretty toxic. As always, my best advice is to avoid plastics whenever possible, particularly when other safer products are available.

A floating floor is not attached to the floor, except around the edges. It does not require glue, however, glue is not a problem if you choose a nontoxic type, such as yellow woodworker’s glue.

Laminate flooring is made up of various layers of material laminated together. There’s a good illustration of what laminate flooring is made up of on the Armstrong website. Basically, laminate flooring is high-density fiberboard, covered by an “image layer” that makes it look like wood, topped with a protective layer of plastic. It is an inexpensive, easy-care alternative to wood and waxing that can be installed over any subfloor. It won’t last as long as wood we are still walking on the original oak floors installed in our home over 65 years ago and the finish feels like plastic. It’s basically a fake wood floor. The one MSDS sheet I looked at showed that brand of laminate flooring emitted formaldehyde fumes, so all in all, I don’t recommend laminate flooring. That said, a friend of mine recently installed a laminate floor all through her living room and it didn’t smell horrible.

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Fels Naptha Soap

Question from Z. X.

I’ve seen many recipes for cleaning items using Fels Naptha soap. Do you have any idea of whether this has toxic ingredients?

Debra’s Answer

100 years ago, Fels-Naptha was the most commonly used laundry soap. It is hard to find now, but is still available on the internet, if not at your local grocer. Often it is misplaced with the bar soaps for handwashing rather than in the laundry section. It is still used today for poison ivy treatment, garden fertilizer and insecticide as well as laundry detergent and for stain removal.

When Fels Naptha was first made, most soap was made from tallow and lye. Tallow was obtained by boiling and filtering butchered fat from cows, pigs, chickens, horses, and other animals.

Today the label lists “cleaners, soil and stain removers, chelating agents, colorants, and perfume” as the ingredients. The warning on the label says, “CAUTION: EYE AND SKIN IRRITANT. Avoid contact with eyes and prolonged contact with skin. Keep Out Of Reach Of Children.

I contacted the manufacturer Dial Corp to get the Material Safety Data Sheet MSDS. In addition to soap dust, the only other hazardous ingredient listed was “Hydrocarbons, Terpene processing by-products CAS# 68956-56-9.” I was unable to find any information on the toxicity of this chemical. My standard databases just said things like “not enough data available”. But it is a petrochemical ingredient.

The MSDS for Fels Naptha from the National Institutes of Health Household Products Database was slightly different. Under “Chronic Health Effects” it says, “Chronic toxicity testing has not been conducted on this product. However, the following effects have been reported on one of the product’s components. Stoddard solvent: Repeated or prolonged exposure to high concentrations has resulted in upper respiratory tract irritation, central and peripheral nervous system effects, and possibly hematopoetic, liver and kidney effects.” Stoddard solvent is another name for mineral spirits, which are, like petroleum distillates, a mixture of multiple chemicals made from petroleum. Exposure to Stoddard solvent in the air can affect your nervous system and cause dizziness, headaches, or a prolonged reaction time. It can also cause eye, skin, or throat irritation.

Both MSDS’s note that the ingredients are not identified as carcinogens or potential carcinogens. Their health effects rating is 1, which is “slight.”

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