Q & A: Formaldehyde in Office Air quality concerns with formaldehyde offgassing in home from building materials

Q. We are creating an office in a 150 square foot room between our garage and main living room has no ventilation, except a small amount upon opening and closing the entry door. We are considering melamine cabinets, Formica countertops, and Pergo floors, and are concerned about the buildup of formaldehyde because of the lack of ventilation. Will the melamine and Formica seal in the formaldehyde from the fiberboard? Are there other options that would result in healthier air? Thank you-
Katherine, Los Altos, CA

A. The best answer to your query is not to use those materials since all have the potential to release formaldehyde, albeit at levels that are relatively low on a historical basis. However, even all-wood cabinets would pose a formaldehyde concern since they may be coated with an acid-cured finish that releases large quantities of formaldehyde in the first 3-6 months of its history.
Formica does significantly reduce formaldehyde emissions from particleboard. To be effective it needs to be present on all surfaces. In the case of countertops, I recommend that you apply a cheaper grade of Formica on the bottom of the countertops to seal in the formaldehyde.

Though Pergo is primarily Formica overlaying what appears to a medium-density fiberboard (a formaldehyde source), I have not tested it to determine whether it is a potent source of formaldehyde or not. Without such information its usage cannot be recommended in a poorly-ventilated space.
At the present time cabinets are the major source of formaldehyde in houses. Despite the use of melamine-coated shelving, Formica, etc., formaldehyde is nevertheless emitted from unsealed joint areas, medium-density fiberboard covered with paper overlays (typically used on the front of cabinets), and acid-cured finish coatings on solid wood materials.

The amount of formaldehyde in a space depends on a number of factors. These include the loading factor (amount of formaldehyde emitting materials to air volume and the amount of ventilation. Closing the door to the office would result in the worst-case formaldehyde concentrations. The loading factor can be decreased by simply keeping the door open most of the time. This increases the ventilation rate and the rate that formaldehyde-emitting materials release formaldehyde. The quicker it degasses, the faster that the air quality in that office area will become acceptable to you.