Formaldehyde Irritation in Work Van?

An installer reports a reaction triggered possibly by panel products stored and transported in his work van. April 30, 2009

I recently bought a new van that I have built custom shelving and cabinetry for to house all of my tooling. I built them from birch ply. Before I installed them, I had these cabinets riding around in the van with me, and after the van would sit in the sun for a while, my eyes and nose would burn whenever I drove around. Yesterday I had to pull over and get out in order to get some relief. The only thing I can think that would cause this would be some of the off-gassing from the glue that is adhering the veneers. Has anybody come across this? Can this be thwarted? How dangerous is this? Currently I have those cabinets airing out in the sun for a few days to see if that will help. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor Y:
Let me see if I have this right: you work in this business and you are not aware of either your exposure to formaldehyde or the panel product industry's struggle to tell you that you are not sensitized to formaldehyde, or the massive FEMA lawsuits lining up that are threatening the RV industry?

Remember that whenever you buy low price (import ply), you are giving up something. It used to just be quality - things like accurate thickness, matching of the faces, etc. Now, it is more than just an inconvenience. Once sensitized, you will likely be made aware any time you get near the stuff.

From the original questioner:
I bought this lumber from a local American distributer, on purpose to try and support a quality product. There is a Home Depot directly across the street selling the same for $7 per sheet less. Obviously my assumptions weren't adequate, but aside from doing copious amounts of research for a simple project, or trailing the lumber racks with a formaldehyde-o-meter, isn't this in the category of a innocent mistake, and maybe not something that needs to be chastised by a patronizing contributor? I'm in this industry as a trim carpenter, and installer, if you must know. If I were building cabinets daily, rest assured, my knowledge base would shift to the ingredients of my materials, and be more of a priority.

From contributor T:
I don't know the finer points of outgassing, but something you could try as a quick fix would be to polyurethane the edges of the plywood. This might slow down the rate of immediate outgassing, though it will still take a while for it to go away. I'm not sure if outgassing is more prevalent because of the sawn edges, or whether it comes out through the face anyway.

From contributor A:
First, as a cabinetmaker with asthma I light up like a pinball machine when exposed to formaldehyde. Thanks to WOODWEB, I found a formaldehyde-free supplier for my MDF needs. I pay a little more, but at least I can work with the stuff.

I doubt that the questioner is more allergic to formaldehyde than I am, so his extreme reaction clearly indicates the manufacturer didn't give a rip about the safety of their product. This isn't about his purchasing choices; it isn't always possible to tell where a brand of plywood or MDF is made.

I'm also afraid that he will need to get rid of his shelves. Allergic reactions to formaldehyde get progressively worse with exposure. Years ago I was rushed to the hospital after an allergic reaction to something in the shop. I came close enough to that woodshop in the sky to be very wary of product safety.

From contributor D:
Are you positive it's the plywood? One thing that popped into my mind - is your van a brand new van? Or at least one with a good exhaust system? I used to have an old beater car with leaky exhaust, and I swear that piece of junk would have you nodding off in about five miles. If it's not a new van check the exhaust like everything else people's reactions can vary.

From the original questioner:
Yeah, itís for sure the plywood. I took these shelves out right after this happened, and I've been driving around all week without any irritation. And it is a brand new van. I think though, to be safe, and based on the consensus of most, I'll be using the units as garage shelving, and having to go for the metal alternative for the van.