The Effect of Office Furniture on the Workplace
Sources of formaldehyde and VOCs
Controlling emissions from furniture
In homes, furniture may be sources of formaldehyde and other Vvolatile organic compounds(VOCs). Many home furniture products and cabinets are made with pressed wood using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins, and sealed or coated with VOC containing finishes. In offices, systems office furniture (workstations), free standing furniture (bookshelves, desks, and credenzas), and built in cabinetry are common. These are made with pressed wood materials, solvent-based wood coatings, glues, fiber glass insulation, and textiles,all sources of formaldehyde and other VOCs. Many of these products will have strong odors when new. Airing them out for some period will help.
Sources of Formaldehyde and VOCs
One manufacturer, in a study designed to identify sources of formaldehyde in commercial wood furniture, found that veneers and stains were minimal contributors.1 Primary contributors were acid catalyzed coatings, particleboard, and backer sheets used on work surfaces. It was also found that particleboards manufactured outside of the US were much higher in formaldehyde emissions than those produced within the US. Particleboards can be sources of other chemicals such as hexanal, pinene, xylenes, butanol, and butyl acetate. While many of the VOCs decrease as the wood ages, formaldehyde is known to emit for years. Although solid, natural wood usage may result in lower emissions, this furniture will still emit VOCs that can act as irritants and odorants. One study indicated that hardwoods such as oak, maple, and ash have less odor and less emissions than soft woods like pine.2
Furniture stains and coatings are sources of numerous VOCs and formaldehyde. Studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that acid cured paints and coatings can be significant sources of formaldehyde. Coatings such as stains, latex paints, and polyurethane can contribute VOCs including ethylbenzene, undecane, butanone, toluene, and butyl propionate to the air.3 Some manufacturers have used ultra violet (UV) cured coatings to reduce final furniture emissions.
Upholstered furniture such as chairs can have components such as fabrics, cushioning, glues, woods, plastics, rubber, and paints or enamels that can be sources of chemicals. Some chemicals associated with polyurethane foam manufacturing can be long-term odorants such as phenol and amines. One study, showed that chemical emissions from chairs decreased rapidly, with over 90 percent of the chemicals gone within approximately one month.4
Office panels or modular partitions are common in workstations or stand alone configurations. They are used to provide visual and acoustical privacy. Materials used to construct panels can also contribute to chemicals emissions and odors: fabrics, glues, fiber glass insulation, interior pressed wood or cardboard, and painted or coated steel or wood frames with trim. Partitions are an indoor air quality (IAQ) concern for numerous reasons including: large, exposed surface areas in a typical office space; close proximity to people; adsorptive nature, meaning they can collect chemical fumes and odors easily from other sources; and potential obstruction of air flow patterns in open office areas.
Some upholstered or fabric furniture can harbor dust, mold spores or allergens. If the materials become wet or chronically damp, mold growth is encouraged. In one response to health complaints, dust mite allergens were measured in 14 offices. The main location where dust mites thrived was in the office chairs. This is because dust samples taken from these chairs showed high amounts of skin cells which is what dust mites eat. The levels of dust mites in the office chairs were higher than in the carpet of the office. Researchers recommended that fabric-covered office furnishings be cleaned regularly and to use steam cleaning to get rid of the dust mites.5 So even though chairs may be manufactured so that they emit low or no amounts of VOCs, they still need to be properly cared for so that you don't have other indoor air problems such as dust mites.
Controlling Emissions From Furniture
In efforts to limit the levels of pollutants emitted from commercial furniture, numerous government agencies have established acceptable emissions criteria that must be met before the state or agency will purchase the furniture. For example, specifications exist from the state of Washington, state of California, and the US EPA. The most stringent of these is the state of California that requires that furniture not release more than 0.02 ppm of formaldehyde and no more than 200 µg/m3 of total VOCs within 14 days of installation. The State of Washington Program is the most widely accepted program for the control of emissions from office furniture and other indoor furnishings; the program has been adopted by numerous other state, federal, and private programs including the US EPA's Headquarters Specification for office furniture. The protocol required for testing to the state of Washington specification was developed by Air Quality Sciences, Inc. in 1991. The protocol was further studied, refined and validated under EPA's Environmental Technology Verification Program in 1999. All furniture now being tested must meet these requirements for acceptability.
Manufacturers of office furniture have become aware of the problems that have existed and have removed the products from the market or have redesigned them to reduce emissions.6 For example, certain leading furniture makers are using less toxic materials in their office furnishings. 7 Many manufacturers are testing their products and qualifying them for the current specifications; many test their products and part of product development to ensure their IAQ acceptability. A listing of manufacturers and their validated, low-emitting, environmentally friendly furniture is available from the Greenguard Environmental Institute.
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Strobridge J, Black M. VOCs and particle emission rated and predicted air concentrations related to movable partitions and office furniture. Proceedings of IAQ '91, ASHRAE, Atlanta, Georgia, 1991.
Janko M, Gould DC, Vance L, Stengel CC, Flack J. Dust mite allergens in the office environment. American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal. 1995;56(11):1133.
Spaul WA. Building-related factors to consider in indoor air quality evaluations. Journal of Allergy Clin Immunol. 1994 August;(number 2, part 2):385-389.
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