No more formaldehyde fumes: researchers create a toxin-free wood adhesive from soy

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: soy, adhesives, health news

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(NaturalNews) Although many products widely used today -- including furniture, flooring and cabinets -- look as if they are made of solid wood, they are actually manufactured from composites consisting of wood pieces bonded together with petroleum-based adhesives. Unfortunately, these adhesives are usually loaded with the toxic chemical formaldehyde. In fact, if you've ever walked into a new house or furniture store and felt your eyes and throat burn, your discomfort was most likely due to formaldehyde vapors emitted from composite wood materials. And not only can exposure to the formaldehyde fumes in these products cause respiratory, eye, nose and throat irritation, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns it may cause lung, nasopharyngeal and other cancers, too.

However, here's good news: toxic, indoor air polluting composite wood products may soon be a thing of the past. At the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) currently underway in Boston, researchers have just announced they've come up with a breakthrough that should have consumers breathing easier. By using a natural compound found in tofu and soy milk to make a safe wood adhesive, they've found a way to make composite products without toxic formaldehyde.

A team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, told the ACS meeting how they've developed a soy-based green alternative to current wood adhesives which are made from petroleum. The natural plant-based glue works just as well as conventional formaldehyde-loaded adhesives for interior products, but without toxic vapors. That means plywood, particleboard, and other composite products made with soy adhesives could usher in a new era of eco-friendly furniture, cabinets, flooring, and other products.

Charles Frihart, Ph.D., a USDA research chemist who participated in the soy adhesive project, noted that in the early 20th century, composite wood products such as plywood were originally made with natural protein glues. "Petrochemical-based adhesives replaced proteins in most applications based upon cost, production efficiencies, and better durability. However, several technologies and environmental factors have led to a resurgence of protein, especially soy flour, as an important adhesive for interior plywood and wood flooring," he said in a statement to the media.

Dr. Frihart explained there are many compelling reasons for manufacturers to turn to soy adhesives. First are the health risks -- ranging from headaches, water eyes and burning sensations to cancer -- associated with breathing formaldehyde. In addition, soy is also far cheaper and more sustainable than petroleum-based glues.

Dr. Frihart said that researchers have developed a host of new soy adhesives in an effort to improve on old protein glue formulas. In laboratory experiments, the USDA researchers tried a variety of these soy glues on wood samples under harsh conditions, including exposure to water and extremely high temperatures. They identified a soy-based glue composed primarily of soy flour with a water-resistant additive and other modifiers that performed as well as the existing formaldehyde-containing petroleum adhesives. Dr. Frihart's team plans to develop even stronger soy adhesives in the future.

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