Unimagined dangers

Formaldehyde in my child’s changing table?

Doctor mother and baby 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Kaplan Medical Center)
Doctor mother and baby 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Kaplan Medical Center)
My husband and I are expecting our first baby in a few months. We have been visiting baby furniture shops and found a suitable bed and diapering table. While all the cribs are made of solid wood, the diapering tables are almost always made of MDF – medium- density fiberboard – which we heard emits formaldehyde fumes for several months after the material is manufactured. Is it safe to buy baby furniture made from MDF and put it in the same room?
R. and A.R., Even Yehuda
Prof. Itamar Grotto, head of public health in the Health Ministry, replies:
Humans are routinely exposed to low levels of formaldehyde, which are naturally produced by plants, animals and people. Most of the formaldehyde to which we are exposed come from industrial processes of manufacturing a variety of consumer products. The amount is dependent on how far away people are from it and the processing method. Combined with water, it is used to preserve cadavers.
Formaldehyde, a toxic organic compound that is a gas at room temperature, colorless and with an irritating smell, enters the body in small amounts mostly through the respiratory system, as well as from food through the digestive system. Tobacco also releases formaldehyde into the air when smoked. When smokers close the windows of a vehicle, for example, formaldehyde levels significantly rise.
It is, as you wrote, used as a raw material for making MDF and other wood-particle products. Thus, furniture made out of MDF can emit formaldehyde into the air. If a person is exposed to formaldehyde and is sensitive, he may develop reactions of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Such formaldehyde dissipates quickly and is released in the urine as a harmless material. Furniture and other products containing formaldehyde release the gas, especially when they are new; within a few months after manufacture, it dissipates. It’s recommended that rooms containing MDF furniture be aired out with open windows when the pieces arrive. In general, moderate temperatures and low humidity reduce the emission of the gas from furniture.
For years, there has been an Israeli standard for MDF furniture that is binding for sale, production, supply and import. According to the Economy and Trade Ministry, MDF is not locally produced. All imports must be approved by the Standards Institution of Israel to ensure that the emission levels are safe. The Health Ministry advises the public to buy MDF furniture only if it has an Israeli standard label and to air out the rooms when it is new. This ensures only a minuscule risk to health.
It seems that almost everybody I know – relatives and work colleagues – is suffering from lower back problems. They complain a lot and don’t function well at home or in the office, and consult a lot of so-called experts – orthopedists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and others, but get little relief. I am a 42-year-old man who has not yet had the problem, but I wondered whether there are ways of preventing lower- back problems?
W.P., Jerusalem
Dr. Slavio Brill, head of the pain unit in the anesthesiology and intensive care unit at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, replies:
Lower-back pain is the second-most-common cause of visits to doctors in the Western world. Studies show that 80 percent of the population suffers or will suffer at some stage of life from lower-back pain. About 80% of such pain passes by itself within a month, and an additional 10% of cases require up to two months for pain to go away. In the remaining 10% of cases, the pain does not go away without significant treatment.
So the problem is indeed very common.
The causes of lower-back pain vary according to the patient’s age and habits. The most common cause is mechanical problems from overuse of muscles, tendons and joints. Another cause is neurological pain from pressure on the spinal cord or on the roots of the nerves. The pressure is usually caused by a spinal disk herniation or as result of a combination of things that gradually narrow the channel through which the spinal cord runs.
People should learn how to use their bodies on a daily basis to avoid lower- and upper-back pain. Sit with your back straight while resting on the back of your chair. Your legs should be flat on the floor and your neck pulled upwards so that your chin is somewhat upward. Set the chair at the height of your knees with a support for the curved part of the lower back. If typing on a computer, your hands should lie at right-angles to your upper arms. Don’t sit in one place for too long.
Get up and stretch at least once per hour. Move your limbs frequently, and plan your workstation properly to avoid stress on the back.
At home, sleep on your back or your side – not on your stomach. When lifting heavy objects, go down on your haunches and lift the objects; don’t bend your back and pull the heavy objects up. Raise heavy objects slowly so your body suits itself to the weight. Sudden movement may cause a change in the division of the weight on muscles and prevent the muscle from supplying enough motor units to cope with the burden.
Regular exercise is recommended to strengthen back and stomach muscles and keep the spine flexible.
Wear shoes with shock absorbers for long walks or sports activity.
Rx for Readers welcomes queries from readers about medical problems. Experts will answer those we find most interesting.
Write Rx for Readers, The Jerusalem Post, POB 81, Jerusalem 91000, fax your question to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich at (02) 538-9527, or e-mail it to jsiegel@jpost.com, giving your initials, age and place of residence.