Kitchen Cabinets & Countertops

Many cabinets and countertops are made with materials that emit toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Check the Label

  • FSC-certified wood

  • No added formaldehyde or certified for low emissions

  • Greenguard Gold-certified adhesives, sealants and finishes

Do’s & Don’ts

Composite Wood Health Risks

Most cabinet boxes, and some doors, are made of a composite of wood products like medium density fiberboard (MDF), particleboard or pressboard, which typically use glues to bind the pieces of wood together. These glues, generally made of either urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde, can emit large amounts of formaldehyde fumes into your home. Urea-formaldehyde glues are of greatest concern because they continue to release formaldehyde throughout the life of the wood. Phenol-based glues emit 90 percent less formaldehyde than those that are urea-based. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.

There are some resins and glues available that do not contain formaldehyde, but many of these alternatives present health risks during the manufacturing process. For example, methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, is used as an alternative binding agent, but it can cause or exacerbate asthma and cause lung damage in workers during production. Another alternative, epichlorohydrin, is listed by California as a carcinogen and reproductive toxicant.

Cabinets

Safer Composite Wood

When buying new cabinets, you will probably not be able to avoid composite wood products altogether, especially for cabinet base boxes, as even in the most customized, high-end options are typically made from plywood. Less expensive options are typically made from MDF or pressboard.

Choose cabinets that either have no added formaldehyde or ones that emit low levels of the chemical. Plywood or other wood composites that meet the California Air Resources Board’s standard for low formaldehyde emissions are labeled as California Phase 2 Compliant. Products that emit below these standards and are made without urea-formaldehyde are labeled “ultra-low emitting formaldehyde,” or ULEF. However, these products may still contain phenol-formaldehyde. Those made without any formaldehyde are labeled “no added formaldehyde,” or NAF.

As early as 2018, pressed wood products that are compliant with standards similar to California Phase 2 will be labeled TSCA Title VI compliant.

Solid Wood Doors

Solid wood cabinet doors and drawer-fronts are available, and are not made with the same formaldehyde-based glues used in composite wood. Look for doors that are FSC certified for using sustainable wood harvested from responsibly managed forests.

Alternatives

Aluminum cabinets are a good option and are becoming more common. They are extremely durable and can be recycled after use. Aluminum cabinets are more expensive than wood composites, but you may be able to find salvaged aluminum or steel cabinets.

If you are on a tight budget, consider incorporating open shelving using solid wood, glass or metal, instead of using only closed cabinets. Salvaged wood may also be a good option. It can be used to construct cabinets or shelves, but make sure to avoid salvaged composite wood or wood with lead paint.

A new type of engineered wood, MycoBoard, contains only plant-based binders. The boards are made from plant or wood fibers, and are combined with a natural resin made from mushroom roots. The boards are formaldehyde-free and can be used to build do-it-yourself cabinetry.

Countertops

Laminate

Avoid laminate countertops, which may include formaldehyde in the composite wood base or in the glue laminating process. Some laminates now on the market are certified as low-emitting and contain recycled materials, but they are not very durable. Paper composite countertops made of recycled fibers are more durable than laminates, but some may still contain phenol-formaldehyde glues or trace amounts of formaldehyde.

Salvaged Stone or Wood

If available, salvaged stone—like granite or slate—and salvaged wood are the most sustainable low-emitting materials. You may be able to find remnants of stone slabs at a considerable discount, which can be cut and finished to fit your kitchen. Check with local installers to see if they have leftovers, or visit a salvage company.

Salvaged or reclaimed wood is a good choice for a natural countertop, except for wet areas around the sink. Use natural oils to protect the wood and prevent drying. If you purchase new, untreated hardwood for counters or butcher blocks, make sure it is FSC certified.

If you choose stone that is not salvaged, check with the manufacturer about what sealants were used. Stone is durable, but has high environmental impacts. Choose a type of stone that is quarried locally, if possible.

Concrete

Concrete countertops are another good option. They do not off-gas harmful chemicals and are less expensive than stone countertops. These countertops are extremely durable, and can be sanded and resealed if they are damaged. Opt for locally sourced aggregate used in the cement mixture, if possible.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel countertops are durable, easy to clean and don’t emit VOCs. Choose materials with high recycled content to minimize environmental impacts. Although the material is energy-intensive to produce, it can be recycled again. You may also be able to find salvaged metal counters.

Recycled Glass

Recycled glass, or terrazzo set in cement, is another option. Avoid terrazzo set with epoxy, which is derived from petroleum and can contain phthalates.

Certifications

  • Greenguard Gold

  • Forest Stewardship Council

References

  1. California Air Resources Board, Frequently Asked Questions. 2016. Available at www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/implementation/faq.htm
  2. California Environmental Protection Agency, Frequently Asked Questions for Consumers: Composite Wood Products. Available at www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/consumer_faq.pdf
  3. Healthy Building Network, Alternative Resin Binders for Particleboard, MDF, and Wheatboard. 2008. Available at www.healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/alternative-resin-binders-for-particleboard-medium-density-fiberboard-mdf-and-wheatboard.pdf
  4. Minnesota Department of Health, Formaldehyde in Your Home. Available at www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/voc/formaldehyde.htm
  5. U.S. Building Council, Buyer’s Guide to Green Countertop Materials. 2009. Available at www.greenhomeguide.com/know-how/article/buyers-guide-to-green-countertop-materials

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