MDF, or Medium Density Fiberboard, furniture is generally considered safe; however, there are several potential dangers that users should be aware of. The material is made from wood fibers that are glued under heat and pressure. It is used to make cabinets, wallboard, and speakers, and consumers can purchase it themselves to build with. This is where some of the real dangers arise. Some of the binders used to make the material can be irritating if inhaled, and may be linked to some types of cancer.
The major concern when dealing with MDF is in the resin used to bind the fibers. Urea formaldehyde is the primary binder used for this, and formaldehyde will leak from the surface for the life of the board if it’s not properly sealed. Some boards use even stronger glues, like phenol formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde inhalation can cause irritation of the lungs, eyes, skin, nose, and mucous membranes. Asthma, dermatitis, and rhinitis have all been linked to exposure to this chemical. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), has found sufficient evidence linking formaldehyde with some types of cancers. As of 2006, more research needed to be done and the IARC maintained their classification of this chemical as a Group 2A carcinogen or simply put, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Most of the dangers are associated with the dust from cutting and working with MDF. Since material for personal use has been around only since the early 1980s, it’s a relatively new product. People using it must follow some basic safety precautions. It’s important that all the dust is vacuumed up or removed soon after the material is cut, and individuals should never work with it without a face mask and goggles. The dust is very fine and can find its way into crevices, causing problems after the project is finished.
The finished project will likely leak formaldehyde, so sealing is important for the long term safety of the project. Wood sealants and finishing oils will reduce the problem, but are typically not as effective in sealing the surface. Paint is a better choice for sealing projects. Nails or screws must be used with caution so that the boards are not split, causing them to leak fumes. The large amount of glue used in MDF will blunt tools quickly, so craftspeople should be sure to sharpen tools between projects.
MDF is a good choice for a wide range of projects. It doesn’t warp like wood planks can, but offers the flexibility of using traditional woodwork joints. Used correctly and sealed well, it has the potential to be a safe material.