Most kitchen and bath cabinets installed in homes today are made with at least some man-made wood products. While upscale cabinets may have solid-wood doors and drawer fronts, the drawer sides and bottoms, the cabinet shelves and backs — and often the end panels — are made of plywood or particleboard. While some of these components may have a fancy wood veneer surface, they are still often made with less expensive man-made wood products. While man-made materials are more stable (they shrink and expand less when the temperature and humidityfluctuates) and are cheaper than solid wood, they can pose real health risks. Here’s why:
Cabinet-grade plywood and particleboard is made primarily of thin layers or bits of wood, such as pine, held together with glue. Pine can give off fairly strong natural terpene odors — gaseous hydrocarbon compounds that can be irritating to mucous membranes. Not surprisingly, some individuals — especially chemically sensitive ones — find these airborne terpenesbothersome. People who are not highly sensitive may only be bothered byterpene odors at higher concentrations, such as would be released by turpentine.
A bigger concern with man-made wood products involves the glues used to construct them — especially the urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. UF glues can emit formaldehyde for years. To make matters worse, the clear finishes commonly applied to cabinets are made from urea-formaldehyde resins. As a result, kitchen and bath cabinets are often major sources of formaldehyde pollution in homes. Formaldehyde can cause sinus and respiratory irritation, menstrual irregularities and possibly an acquired hypersensitivity to many other substances.
It’s been suggested that you can reduce the emissions from your cabinets by simply coating all the surfaces with a sealant. However, even applying multiple coats will not seal in all the bothersome gases completely. While they’ll be greatly reduced, the remaining emission levels are often still intolerable for sensitive individuals. Then too, sealants are often very odorous in their own right and could take several months to lose their odor after being applied.
Making problematic new cabinets tolerable is often difficult — even impossible in many cases. Time may be a better cure, although sufficiently reduced emissions for sensitive people may take a few years. Obviously, the ideal approach would be to install healthier cabinets to begin with.
In any home-construction or remodeling project requiring new cabinetry, it’s best to choose cabinets that won’t compromise your own health or that of your family. Here are some less-toxic cabinet suggestions:
Alternative Solid-Wood Cabinets
Solid-wood cabinets can be a healthy choice — if the woods, glues and finishes are carefully chosen. Such cabinets are attractive and long lasting, but understand that they’ll likely be quite expensive. This is not only because solid wood costs more than man-made wood products, but also because solid-wood cabinets will probably need to be custom-built. (Note: Some commercially made cabinets are advertised as being “made from solid wood” when, in fact, they contain plywood.)
When choosing the type of wood to be used in your cabinets, pine is a viable option for many people. However, new pine gives off relatively strong natural terpene odors that can be bothersome to some sensitive people. Some low-odor hardwoods you might consider are maple, birch and tulip poplar. Tulip poplar is often a good choice; it’s fairly inexpensive, is easy to work with and has an informal, yet attractive, appearance.
“What can we use for drawer bottoms?” is a question often asked by people wanting all solid-wood cabinets. Actually, a simple solution is to use galvanized sheet metal. Sheets of galvanized steel will provide a washable, sturdy surface, eliminating the need for plywood or other man-made wood products that are normally used. A 24-gauge thickness will generally provide drawer bottoms with adequate support, but for extra-wide drawers, it’s better to use a slightly thicker material.
Another factor to consider with solid-wood cabinets is stain. In reality, stain is often unnecessary. Without any stain, a wood’s natural beauty (color and grain) will clearly show through, and a possible source of intolerance (the stain itself) is eliminated. Concerning glue, often, a low-odor carpenter’s glue or a white glue makes a good choice. Finally, you’ll need to choose a tolerable and durable clear finish.
Remember, your new cabinets will likely have a “new” odor immediately after being made, no matter what materials, glues and finishes you have chosen. This odor can actually persist for some time. Therefore, if possible, store your new cabinets in a dry, uncontaminated area — such as a detached garage — for several weeks before their final installation. If you’re a chemically sensitive individual, it’s best not to put them in your kitchen or bathroom until they’re completely odor-free.
Alternative Particleboard Cabinets
Formaldehyde-free particleboard products can be used instead of solid wood when constructing new cabinetry for your home. Unlike typical particleboards, these are not made with formaldehyde-based glues. While these may cost more than other particleboards, they’re much less expensive than using solid hardwood. Also, less skill is required to work with them than with solid wood. Therefore, labor costs should be lower.
However, despite using healthier glues, these alternative particleboards are often still too bothersome for many sensitive people. This is usually because they release natural hydrocarbon terpenes from the softwoods of which they’re made. Softwoods also often contain a tiny amount of naturally occurring formaldehyde. Completely coating all the alternative particleboard’s exposed surfaces with up to four coats of a sealant will help reduce these odors, but it will not completely eliminate them. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that sealants are often very odorous in their own right.
To make alternative-particleboard cabinets more tolerable as well as attractive, all the surfaces can be covered with a high-pressure plastic laminate. High-pressure plastic laminates are thin, very dense sheets which will not only seal in much of the odor being released from the wood underneath, but will also give your cabinets a sleek, modern “European” look. Remember though, some minor leakage of terpenes and/or formaldehyde may still occur where seams meet, or where holes have been drilled for shelf supports.
If you choose to use high-pressure plastic laminate over particle board, consider using a water-based contact cement as an adhesive — often available at local hardware stores and building centers. Whenever laminating is being done, providing plenty of ventilation and wearing a cartridge-type respirator mask as safety measures are good ideas.
Alternative-Plywood Cabinets
Cabinet-grade, furniture-grade and hardwood plywoods also release relatively high levels of formaldehyde from the urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues. However, if you really want to use plywood, you might consider choosing a construction-grade product.
Construction-grade plywood (either interior or exterior grade) is usually made of much-less-attractive fir or pine, but its layers are held together using a water-resistant phenol-formaldehyde (PF) glue. These products all have an American Plywood Association (APA) grade stamp. A PF glue emits much lower quantities of formaldehyde than the non-water-resistant urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue. To make construction-grade plywood even more tolerable, you might consider the various options discussed above for alternative-particleboard cabinets.

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