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Chipboard: not all it has chipped up to be. (Sustainability).

In the mid 80s, the timber industry ran into the Pacific Ocean on their century long swath of destruction across America. While some blamed a spotted owl, the simple fact remains that over-consumption and industry over-cutting had found them at the end of the frontier. The industries then returned en masse to converge on the recovering forests of the Southeast. The pulp and paper industry now utilizes the forests of the Southeast to meet seventy percent of their demands for product and profit, supplying our nation and international clients with the materials for toilet paper and chipboard from our beautiful and diverse woodlands. The building products industry, now faced with competing for a younger forest being cut faster, has joined in a forest feeding frenzy incomparable to any thus far seen. With current trends, the forests of the South are due to be cut within forty years. The building products industry, seeing the future of immature forests, has invested greatly in engineered building materials like Oriented Strand Board (OSB), Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) and other composite materials. We shall focus on the largest segment, OSB.

OSB is the largest growth segment of this transition with over sixty new mills in the US and Canada, most built in the last decade. OSB production has increased nearly thirty-fold since 1980 and overtook plywood in 2001 as the leading panel board for construction According to the Structural Board Association, OSB will have a sixty percent market share by 2004. [a]


The manufacturers and trade groups rally around the "environmentally friendly" nature of OSB. Claims are made that OSB utilizes waste wood, young trees, and trees unsuitable for other purposes, and can come from plantations of fast growing hybrids or genetically engineered, cloned "frankentrees". The reality is that the vast majority of OSB production is responsible for clearcutting remaining native forests of the Southeastern US, as well as robbing mature public and private forest in Canada, Chile, and nearly everywhere they have established plants. Due to their ability to use even small trees and utilize limbs and `waste' wood in generating some of their energy demands, the clearcutting is becoming more prevalent and severe, leaving virtual deserts where forests once stood. Despite claims of sustainability, virtually none of the industry's cutting practices have ever been shown to be remotely sustainable. The first community health impacts of OSB manifest themselves in polluted waters downstream from clear cuts, contributions to global warming from deforestation, and increasing flood damages. Additional assaults to communities near OSB clear cuts include adverse health effects from applications of toxic herbicides and fertilizers used in replacement plantations. Over a quarter of the South's remaining native forests are slated to be destroyed and converted to chemically intensive fiber farms by 2040, or far earlier by some estimates. [b]

The resulting increase in industrial scale clearcutting is adversely affecting many species of plants, animals, and birds that depend on mature forested landscapes. Increased sedimentation and erosion from logging is damaging water quality, impacting aquatic species as well as drinking supplies. In addition to providing clean drinking water, forests moderate hydrological functions (preventing floods and droughts), filter air pollutants, give off oxygen, support and maintain genetic and biodiversity, and provide a unique place to recreate and seek spiritual renewal. In addition to ecological effects, clearcutting for chipboard has long-term negative implications for our region's economy, impacting overall community economic well-being as well as forest-dependent businesses such as outdoor recreation, tourism, and solid wood manufacturing. All of these values are destroyed when a forest is clear cut.


Because we can no longer find enough mature forests that can be milled to meet demands, the building industry is focused on gluing together chopped up pieces of remaining and young forests using urea-formldehyde (U-F) phenol formaldehyde (P-F) and methylene-diisocyanate (MDI).

Workers are now facing far more toxic workplaces in manufacture and building trades, communities are dealing with toxic releases of these chemical into their air, land and water, and consumers are seeing elevated levels of toxins within their homes. While MDI is far more toxic acutely to workers in manufacturing, the more widely used formadehyde based building products out-gas into homes of consumers for years. U-F is an order of magnitude more potent than P-F. According to studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine [1], OSB (oriented strand board) workers were more likely to have increased incidences of asthma and other airway dysfunction. Other studies show high exposures can produce pulmonary edema and death [4]. The EPA considers formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen in nasal passages, larynx, and lungs [2], and animal studies [3] show them to be carcinogenic. Menstrual disorders and pregnancy problems have also been reported in female workers exposed to formadehyde. Cyanide-based MDI is a suspected human carcinogen [5], and isocyanates have also been shown to cause respiratory distress and death in humans and cancers in lab animals. (An MDI release in Bhopal, India killed 2000 people.)

According to the EPA, newer homes may have greater than three times the concentration of formaldehyde in ambient air than older homes. It is not uncommon to have formaldehyde levels in homes far higher than the current national standard for protecting public health [6].

There is concern among some about links of the increasing reliance on chemically engineered building products to to the epidemic increase in childhood asthma and dramatic increase in adults in the last two decades, as well as a variety of other suspected health effects.


Use nontoxic, sustainable products. You can demand nontoxic building products for your home, from sustainably grown sources only. Some lumber certification programs are questionable at best, but doing a little research will help save a forest. There are alternative building products on the market and emerging that use urban wood waste, agricultural residues and alternative fibers.

Build lightly on the earth. While many people are building highly inefficient, oversized monster homes, you can choose to build an appropriate, low maintenance smaller home of quality and charm that is not trying to kill you. Many businesses offer recycled building materials, some selling good, solid windows and doors from old houses and some offering beautiful weathered timbers from barns. Earth building, such as cob, straw bale, and adobe, is gaining in popularity due to these homes' overall energy efficiency, longevity, beauty, and low environmental impact.

If the same care was taken in choosing what goes into your house that you take while shopping for organic food, you may have far greater influence in the overall health of your family. If our homes are hurting us and our families, it is a wake up call to become mindful of all of our footprints on this gentle earth. We can build long lasting homes safe for all generations sheltered within their walls, with an equally healthy earth outside those walls.



[a] Structural Board Association

[b] Southern Forest Resource Assessment (Draft) Timber 1.1

[1] Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 37(4):461-465, 1995. (28 references)

[2] /RAC/Formaldehyde.html

[3] Toxicity Nelson N.: Written communication from New York University Medical Center, Institute of Environmental Medicine to NIOSH, Rockville, Maryland. (October 19, 1979).

[4] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Criteria for a Recommended Standard Occupational Exposure to Formaldehyde. DHEW (NIOSH) Publication No. 77-126 (1976).

[5] CAS 624-83-9 methyl isocyanate

[6] EPA Health Effects Notebook for Hazardous Air Pollutants-Draft, EPA-452/D-95-00, PB95-503579, December 1994

Denny Haldeman is a steering committee member of Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville, NC-based nonprofit group working to save as much of remaining native southeastern forests as possible. Visit to become a member or find out more about their good work.
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Author:Haldeman, Denny
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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