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U.S. set to approve formaldehyde standards

Would regulate chemical's use in furniture, other products

Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, June 24, 2010

WASHINGTON — With passage Wednesday by the U.S. House, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act appears headed for adoption.

The bill, passed by the Senate earlier this month, would establish the first national standards for formaldehyde in composite panel. It would be similar to the standards already in place in California.

The legislation will now head to the president to be signed into law. He is expected to do so next Tuesday or Wednesday.

The bill is intended to protect consumers from hazardous levels of formaldehyde, used as a chemical bonding agent in composite panel. It would apply to domestic and foreign-made products, according to one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

It establishes emission standards for hardwood plywood, medium density fiberboard and particleboard that is sold in the United States. Composite wood is in many household products such as furniture, cabinets and flooring.

The bill is likely to require furniture retailers and suppliers nationwide to adopt practices similar to those mandated in California, which mandates extensive documentation of products through the supply chain showing that they do not emit the gas beyond certain limits.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this year that the bill will cost about $3 million to implement.

"Not only does this legislation protect consumers; it also ensures that foreign wood products adhere to the same safety standards we employ here in the U.S.," Crapo said in a press release.

Under the proposed federal legislation, by Jan. 1, 2013, products sold in the United States would have to meet a formaldehyde emission standards of about 0.09 parts per million, which would be the toughest standard in the world, according to the bill's backers.

The legislation requires third-party testing for compliance and enforcement by federal agencies.

Officials at the American Home Furnishings Alliance, who worked with the California Air Resources Board for more than seven years on that state's formaldehyde rule, said it will work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it writes the regulations for the new federal law.

"While we have made steady, incremental achievements, compliance challenges remain within the California standard, and we will work with the EPA to address those same challenges in the federal standard," said AHFA Vice President Bill Perdue.

California began phasing in its formaldehyde rule last year. As the furniture business has slowed, the state has issued extensions to give furniture factories and retailers more time to clear their inventories of noncompliant products.

Bob Schoenfeld, quality control manager for Petaluma, Calif.-based retailer Scandinavian Designs, said that as a national rule is developed, it is vital that those crafting it enforcement know the weaknesses of the California rule.

While U.S.-based mills will likely have an easier time meeting the standard, Schoenfeld said the law will require massive oversight to monitor the information required of international factories. A federal law should also have "reasonable" deadlines for selling non-compliant inventory.

AHFA's Perdue also said that establishing "adequate sell-through provisions" will be crucial with the federal law.

"Unlike in California, where non-compliant inventories could be moved to other markets, there is no pragmatic solution to non-compliant inventories within the national market," he said.

A second challenge with the law will be establishing reasonable testing and compliance provisions, according to the AHFA. The organization said that if raw board component parts are properly regulated and tested, downstream users including manufacturers and retailers should not have to test finished goods, such as furniture or cabinets.

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