Good questions and a very common problem. Particleboard furniture is often imported from overseas where restrictions on urea formaldehyde are not in place or not enforced well.
Generally speaking, furniture made with Melamine (the white panels) contain an abundance of formaldehyde which off-gasses into the environment.
- That is changing however, and there are some suppliers using formaldehyde-free Melamine, especially in California, but it is still rare.
- If you know the furniture came from overseas it is most likely not subject to the same standards as in the US.
Formaldehyde emissions come mainly from the exposed edges of Melamine furniture, i.e. the areas that are not white.
- Look on the top and bottom edges.
- But don't forget to check underneath the drawers, the sides and the back of the cabinet as they often are completely exposed or made from medium density fiberboard (MDF) which usually contains urea formaldehdye too.
A simple solution
There are several ways to deal with this problem.
The simplest is to let it off-gas outdoors or in your garage where it will not bother anyone. If you can't do this because the furniture is too heavy to move, then open windows, turn on fans and turn up the heat. Heat and ventilation will significantly accelerate formaldehyde off-gassing.
While these methods may help some, they are rarely sufficient to eliminate the problem. Most off-gassing of this type will probably continue for months or even years in lesser degrees.
Sealing in the formaldehyde
The most effective solution is to seal all edges with an encapsulating sealer. Some people have used Shellac, but there are too many types of Shellac some of which contain solvents which off-gas too.
The best products we have found for this purpose are made by AFM Safecoat.
- They are called Safe Seal and Hard Seal.
- Both were specifically designed to seal about 90% of the formaldehyde emissions in the adhesives as well as other volatile organic compounds used in the stains or finishes.
- (AFM makes other sealers that control off-gassing of carpeting, flooring, grout and paint.)
Safe Seal and Hard Seal can be used on porous wood paneling such as plywood, chipboard, MDF, oriented strand board (OSB), etc.
- Safe Seal dries soft and is recommended for surfaces that will not be seen or touched.
- Hard Seal dries hard and is for surfaces such as furniture or cabinetry that are visible and may be touched.
- They are relatively inexpensive and cover about 250 SF/gallon and can be applied with a brush or sprayed with a garden sprayer.
For a Melamine desk, a quart of Hard Seal will do. You may have to apply two or three coats depending upon the humidity in the air, amount of formaldehyde in the furniture, and your sensitivity. Always use thin coats and let each coat thoroughly dry before applying the next. Once the sealer has fully cured in about a week, you should notice almost no off-gassing.
As with all new products that you are unfamiliar with, we strongly recommend that you test for your own sensitivity to the sealant first in an inconspicuous area before using.
For more information:
Read "Would painting MDF cabinets with a low-VOC lacquer seal in the chemicals that offgas from it (formaldehyde)?" a Q&A answered by Doug Cameron.