Question

I want to buy my granddaughter a wooden doll chest. I am considering one handmade from a veneer called luan. Should I be concerned?

Asked by Sharon Butler
Louisville, KY

She would keep the doll chest in her bedroom.

Answer

David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

November 14, 2011

It doesn’t seem right to be a killjoy on something as sweet sounding as a doll chest for a granddaughter. But I have to adopt my end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it voice and say:

  • I might not want to be either an occupant of the doll house that the chest will call home, or
  • the place the lauan used to call home.

Lauan (sometimes written luan) is a tropical hardwood, which we see most often in a plywood form. And right there, we’ve got two red flags.

Lauan is a critically endangered species

Lauan is one of the names for a type of wood found in Asian rainforests.

In the Philippines, where the wood was first harvested on a commercial scale, 80% of the forests are gone. Since then, forests in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been similarly decimated. If you do a search for Lauan in the Red List of Threatened Species, you’ll turn up eight “critically endangered” species.

This species-threatening deforestation is not just a far away problem. The world’s rainforests are a vital part of our planetary ecosystem, providing oxygen, sequestering carbon and making a home for countless other species, some of which –aside from their natural beauty and wonder – are the sources for numerous modern pharmaceuticals.

There ought to be signs outside these essential resources saying “proceed at our own risk.” It’s not just some pretty forest we’re talking about.

The glues in plywood

That other red flag is the word plywood.

In many ways, plywood is a great product. The alternating grain of its layers prevents warping and adds strength, and the fact that it’s built up from thin layers means it can be fabricated from scrappier, less expensive wood.

But what holds those layers together? Until recently, virtually all of the glues included a volatile organic compound (VOC) called urea-formaldehyde. Outdoors, VOCs produced by burning gasoline or wood or natural gas are one of the ingredients causing smog. But interior exposure is our bigger concern here. Formaldehyde is a commonly used ingredient in adhesives for “engineered” wood such as plywood and particle board (and many bamboo lumber products, too). It can be found in an assortment of other interior products as well: foam insulation, paint, sealants, synthetic fabrics.

VOC’s, including formaldehyde, become gasses at room temperatures. This means the formaldehyde in a product can be released, or off-gassed, into the air.

  • The good news is that it breaks down fairly fast. 
  • The bad news is that it can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and headaches, dizziness, coughing, even asthma and neurological effects.
  • And if that wasn’t enough, the federal government, which is usually overly conservative about these things, has determined that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.

Choosing a dollhouse you can feel good about

Returning to the gift for your granddaughter, it’s possible that the plywood has been made with “no added urea-formaldehyde.” (Some companies will call this no-VOC or no UF, for urea-formaldehyde, but since formaldehyde also exists naturally, it’s more accurate to use the “no added UF” label.)

It’s also possible – though I don’t know if I’ve encountered it – that the Lauan was sustainably harvested.

Grinch that I apparently am, I suspect neither is the case here. But I’d be happier, for all of us, if I was wrong.

 

For more information:

Read "Which species of wood are the most sustainable?" a Q&A answered by J Neufeld.

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