From The Healthy House Answer Book: Answers to the 133 most commonly asked questions. Questions 111-118.
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111. How healthy are most kitchen cabinets?
As a rule, the majority of new cabinets—kitchen, bath, etc.—are quite unhealthy. This is because manufacturers all use man-made wood products—hardboard, particle board, and plywood—which contain a potent urea-formaldehyde glue. Even expensive cabinets are made with these materials, and they outgas formaldehyde for years. Although the doors and drawer fronts may be made of solid wood, the end panels, backs, shelves, drawer bottoms, and drawer sides are made of noxious wood products. They can have an attractive thin wood veneer on the surface, but it does little to block formaldehyde. Some manufacturers claim they make their cabinets out of “solid wood,” but they’re playing games with definitions. If you ask if they use plywood, they’ll answer, "Yes, that plywood is solid wood."
When man-made wood products have a plastic or vinyl surfacing, it can block some of the emissions, but almost never enough for sensitive people to tolerate new cabinets. This is because in commercially made cabinets, the plastic or vinyl surfacing rarely covers all the edges, and it often has holes drilled in it for shelf supports.
While the cabinet materials are bad enough, the clear finishes used are often worse. Most manufactures use a urea-formaldehyde clear finish that is one of the strongest formaldehyde emitters found in houses. The good news is that it’s so powerful, it’s usually done outgassing after 4-6 months. After that, you’ve still got the formaldehyde in the plywood, particle board, and hardboard to contend with.
112. Can’t I just coat problem cabinets with a sealant to make them safe?
To be effective, a sealant must be applied to all surfaces—top, bottom, front, back, sides, edges, and all nooks and crannies. We’ve talked to a number of sensitive people who have done this and they almost always say the same thing: “It was a lot of work. We put 4 coats of sealant on everything, and it did help—but it didn’t help enough.” You get imperfect results because most sealers are imperfect at blocking emissions.
Benjamin Moore Paint Co. has a sealer called Impervo that was tested in Canada and found to block 100% of formaldehyde emissions, but it’s an oil-based paint. For sensitive people, it probably wouldn’t be any more tolerable than the formaldehyde. Plus, it won’t do much for the appearance of your attractive new oak cabinets to slap a few coats of paint on them.
113. What healthy options do I have if I want new wood cabinets?
At the time of this writing, Neff Kitchen Manufacturers Ltd. (6 Melanie Dr., Brampton, ON Canada L6T 4K9, 905-791-7770) is a company making cabinets available nationally with reduced levels of formaldehyde. They still use plywood, but their raw materials use less urea-formaldehyde glue than most other cabinet-grade products. These cabinets are better-than-average, but they’re probably not healthy enough for sensitive people.
One of the healthiest options is to have cabinets custom made with solid wood throughout. Although most cabinet shops don’t routinely do this, many have the ability to do so. We’ve used this option several times, and have learned a few tricks to make construction easier and a bit less expensive. For example, you can use a less-expensive wood for the shelves and insides, and just use the more costly oak or walnut for the exposed fronts. We also have eliminated the back panels. So, when you look into our cabinets, you just see the painted kitchen (or bathroom) wall. For drawer bottoms, we use galvanized (zinc coated) sheet metal. It’s easy to clean, and easy to substitute for a more-expensive solid-wood panel. For the wide shelves in base cabinets, we’ve also used galvanized sheet metal. We just measure what we need and have a local sheet-metal shop fold up pieces with mounting flanges, and then screw them to solid-wood end panels. You can also substitute glass for upper cabinet shelves, or for the panels in upper cabinet door fronts.
Some people have made the cabinet shelves and end panels out of construction-grade plywood because it’s made with a much-less-potent phenol-formaldehyde glue. A product called Medex (Medite Corporation, P.O. Box 4040, Medford, OR 97501, 800-676-3339) is also sometimes used because it contains a formaldehyde-free glue. These are great options—if you aren’t particularly sensitive. But, we know of sensitive people who are bothered by these materials because of their natural pine odor. They can sometimes be made tolerable by covering all surfaces with a hard plastic laminate (such as Formica). This can give you an attractive European look.
We’ve also heard of people buying cheap metal cabinets, ripping the fronts off, and attaching attractive new fronts made of solid wood. With a little ingenuity, you can have healthy cabinets—it just takes a little thought and preplanning.
114. I’m having trouble finding metal cabinets. Are they still being made?
They certainly are, although there aren’t a lot of suppliers. You can still buy the plain, white cabinets that were common in the 1950s, or you can buy attractive textured-metal cabinets in a variety of designer colors. You can even get cabinets made completely of low-tox stainless steel.
The least-toxic finish on painted cabinets is usually a powder coating. It consists of a special powdered paint that’s sprayed onto hot metal and baked on. If you’re interested in metal cabinets, ask about soundproofing materials. Some manufactures use fiberboard or some other material inside hollow doors, but they’ll often leave it out on special request.
Suppliers of metal cabinets include Davis Kitchens (P.O. Box D, New Buffalo, MI 49117, 800-553-2847), Fillip Metal Cabinet Co. (701 N. Albany St., Chicago, IL 60612, 773-826-7373), and Kitchens and Baths by Don Johnson (Merchandise Mart #1375, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-548-2436).
115. Are plastic countertops healthy?
Some are, some aren’t. If you look underneath those made with a high-pressure plastic laminate (such as Formica), you’ll invariably see unfinished particle board—which is outgassing formaldehyde downward. If you’re having new countertops made, there are a couple of things you can do to reduce emissions. First, you can substitute construction-grade plywood or Medex for the particle board. You can also cover all surfaces—not just the top and exposed edges— with plastic laminate. The plastic itself is hard enough that it doesn’t outgas much, and it’s dense enough that it’s fairly good at blocking emissions. You can also specify that a water-based contact adhesive be used—rather than the usual solvent-based version—but this isn’t critical if all surfaces are covered with plastic laminate.
Corian, which is made by DuPont, is one of several solid-surfacing materials now on the market. They’re all synthetic products, made with acrylic or polyester resin and marble dust. Most are fairly inert, and they’re often well tolerated by sensitive people. However, sometimes, to save money, these countertops are made with a solid-surfacing material laminated on top of a plywood or particleboard base, which can outgas formaldehyde. For the healthiest installation, you should just use the solid-surfacing material itself. To be sturdy enough, the countertops may need to be made with a thicker material, or have stiffeners attached to the bottom.
116. Why do you like stainless steel for kitchen countertops?
Stainless steel is the healthiest countertop option available. It’s been used for decades in hospitals, commercial kitchens, and laboratories. Stainless can withstand hot pots and it won’t support microbial growth. Neither will it stain, crack, nor chip. In addition, it doesn’t require a sealant, and it never needs polish or wax. We’ve put several stainless-steel countertops into healthy houses, and they earn high marks from homeowners because they’re so easy to keep clean and so great to work on.
Sometimes, a thin gauge of stainless is laminated to a plywood base material. We’ve always used 14-gauge stainless, which is stiff enough that it doesn’t need a base. These countertops are always custom made, and measurements must be precise because stainless countertops can’t easily be trimmed to fit. We’ve had them made with the countertop and backsplash in one seamless piece. For a sink, there are two choices. While it can be costly, you can have the sink welded into the countertop with all seams polished until they’re invisible. Or, you can just use a standard drop-in sink. To locate a fabricator, look in your phone book under Commercial Kitchen Suppliers. Most major cites will have one or more companies listed that regularly provide stainless-steel countertops.
117. I’m chemically sensitive. What kind of wood trim should I use in my new house?
It depends on just how sensitive you are. For most people, trim made of solid pine is a very good choice, but some sensitive people are bothered by its natural aroma. If your sensitivities aren’t severe, you may be able to tolerate pine just fine once it’s finished. We like to use the clear water-based urethane finishes that are often used on floors. If pine is a problem for you, trim made of hardwood (such as oak, maple, or poplar) is often available in many parts of the country. In the Midwest, we routinely use tulip-poplar for trim because it’s quite attractive. And, because it grows here, it’s cheaper than pine.
118. What kind of interior doors are healthiest?
Doors can be made from a variety of materials: solid wood, plywood, particle board, plastic, resin-impregnated paper, etc. Those made completely of solid wood are definitely the healthiest. Most lumber yards and building-supply centers can readily supply solid-wood doors made of pine, and they can usually order them made with hardwoods such as oak or poplar. In addition, there are custom cabinet shops in most parts of the country that can supply solid-wood doors in a variety of styles.
Steel doors can also be used, but they tend to look rather institutional. Some interior steel doors have soundproofing materials or stiffeners inside, but the steel skin usually prevents most of the odors from escaping. Metal doors can be taken to an automotive body shop to be painted in an attractive color. For closets, companies such as Slimfold Products (868 Murray Rd., Dothan, AL 36303, 800-633-7553) offer pre-finished metal bi-fold closet doors with louvers or embossed panels, or mirrored by-pass doors that are healthy options.
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