NY Times: Styrene and Formaldehyde Carcinogens

The NY Times reported on a recent study claiming Formaldehyde causes cancer. As a New York green builder I read this stuff and roll my eyes. Like, duh! What’s next, a study claiming water makes you wet?

Being a green contractor comes with a certain feeling of being a lone voice in the woods. We have been building formaldehyde free brownstones for years. From the kitchen cabinets to the subfloors we avoid formaldehyde.

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This is a kitchen we recently build using formaldehyde free FSC maple plywood and non toxic glue

It doesn’t take a genius to smell a fresh plank of OSB particle board and realize that stuff is bad for you. It is just common sense. But for some reason our society needs to spend millions of dollars and years of research to justify the obvious.

And even then you have industry idiots discrediting the study. One moron was trying to say the study is going to hurt small businesses, obviously in an attempt to garner public support for continued use of the chemical.

And by the way, we build formaldehyde free without any sacrifice whatever. The only reason homes have formaldehyde is that companies want to sell the stuff. And those companies happen to be bigger and more aggressive than the companies offering alternatives.

It isn’t cheaper or better in any way. Using formaldehyde is a bad habit the construction industry got into and like drug pushers the chemical industry isn’t helping us get out of it.

Also on the list is styrene, used in all sorts of things from cups for your hot chocolate to filler for doors. Again, you don’t have to be a lab coat researcher to notice your polystyrene cup melt slightly as you pour hot beverages into it. You are basically mixing up a chemical cocktail each time you pour your kids a cuppa hot cocoa at the school pot luck.

The study also lists spun glass as a possible carcinogen, the main ingredient for fiberglass insulation. Hmmm….thousands of minuscule glass shards in your lungs are not good for you…what a discovery!

Here is the kicker: styrene, formaldahyde and glass are all organic compounds. This is important because most people have this misconception that “natural” is good and “synthetic” is bad. Most chemicals are naturally occurring. A classic example is the mushroom. Depending on the molecular arrangement of the mushroom it can feed you, cure you, or kill you. It’s all natural.

This is very important for green builders to understand. The inexperienced green builder often things that natural is always good. But the truth is that everything is ultimately natural. There is really no distinction.

You can get lung cancer from applying clay walls just as easily as applying cement walls.

The veteran green contractor understands this and knows how to use their materials in the right way. This week for example we are applying clay walls to the Harlem Passive House and the air is full of silica dust, a perfectly natural ingredient found in sand. But silica causes silicosis cancer so we treat it like a toxic ingredient.

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Here are brick walls we are covering with clay


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  1. […] A recent study lists Styrene as a possible carcinogen. This is important news since one of Eco Brooklyn’s green roof medium providers, Gaia Soil, has polystyrene as one of its main ingredients. Our concern is that we are installing green roofs in New York with materials that may cause cancer. […]

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