The Changing Chemistry of Office Cubicles

Related Content- Office Furniture, Office Cubicles, Workstations, Used Office Furniture

Hear Kellyn Betts talking about this article and its implication with Steve Curwood of the Living on Earth radio show, which is distributed by National Public Radio. (Look for "Caution on Cubicles".)

You needn’t be familiar with the Dilbert comic to imagine why the strip’s creator, Scott Adams, paints life inside a modern corporate office cubicle as bleak. Although things rarely improve in Dilbert’s world, the situation is quite different inside real-world office cubicles, according to Marilyn Black, the chief scientist and chief executive officer of Air Quality Sciences, Inc. As the result of testing the air emissions from more than 30,000 indoor office furnishings and products—including many office cubicles—over 30 years, Black attests that most newer office furniture and equipment produce much fewer potentially toxic emissions than their predecessors. And office cubicles (or office systems furniture, as their manufacturers prefer to call them) have gone from being “one of the most significant emitters to a much cleaner product,” she says.

Air Quality Sciences Testing in this chamber helps the manufacturers of office cubicles make sure that their products don’t emit toxic pollutants.A typical cubicle has at least a dozen components, including coatings, varnishes, fiberglass, textiles, fabrics, adhesives, and finishes, according to Lou Newett, director of environmental health and safety for Knoll, Inc., a major office furniture manufacturer. By making the first measurements of the emissions coming from cubicles in the mid-1980s, Black revealed that some of those components were sources of toxic compounds. For example, testing documented that the hydrocarbon-based adhesives used at the time emitted volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as naphthalene, benzene, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and 1,4-dioxane—all of which are regulated as hazardous air pollutants in outdoor air.

That was an incentive for action, especially given that some of Black’s first cubicle tests were conducted as part of a legal settlement. Employees had alleged that the cubicles inside U.S. EPA buildings—including the Waterside Mall headquarters in Washington, D.C.—made them sick. Newett and other furniture manufacturers point out that such complaints about “sick buildings” were an outgrowth of the energy crisis of the 1970s. In the process of “tightening” buildings to increase their energy efficiency, their occupants sealed them up so that “the different compounds emitting off of furniture, carpeting, and wall coverings were pretty much staying in the building and being recirculated,” Newett explains. Sick buildings were blamed for fatigue and dizziness, as well as ailments such as coughs, scratchy throats, sinus infections—and cancers.

Another incentive for office furniture companies to reduce their products’ emissions came in 1990, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began requiring that manufacturers label their products that have detectable formaldehyde emissions. The latest OSHA standard says that any product “capable of releasing formaldehyde at levels above .5 parts per million (ppm) must [be labeled to indicate that it is] a potential cancer hazard.” Dave Rinard, director of corporate environmental performance for Steelcase, Inc., another major office furniture manufacturer, says, “Clearly, products carrying the label won’t sell very well.”

These pressures forced the companies making office cubicles “to transform almost everything they did” over the following years, Black says. Between 1985 and 2005, the average levels of formaldehyde released from office systems furniture—with the exception of all-wood products—have dropped by 52%, she says. The amount of chlorinated VOCs in the cubicle emissions has decreased by more than 90%, primarily from the elimination of certain adhesive formulations, cleaning chemicals, and blowing agents, she adds. And total VOC emissions have gone down by 40–70%, she says.

But the most significant shift took place during the past decade, when the insights that manufacturers gleaned through the process of reducing their furniture’s emissions of these toxic compounds served as a catalyst—together with market forces—for fundamental changes in how office furniture is designed, developed, and marketed. In recent years, “greenness” has become a competitive advantage, and cubicles are now actively marketed as low-emitting products, says Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Industry Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA). As a result, tests that prove that the products are as green as they claim to be are crucial.

Of all the chemical emissions that cubicle manufacturers have grappled with to get to this point, formaldehyde has arguably represented the biggest challenge. The first measurements showed that office furniture generated much more formaldehyde than expected, says Kirsten Ritchie of Scientific Certification Systems, which verifies air emissions and other claims for a wide variety of products. Even now, formaldehyde remains the largest detectable emission from cubicle products, Black says.

Everyone in the office furniture industry had known that particleboard, which is a mainstay for constructing office cubicles, was a major source of formaldehyde emissions, recalls Bob Dutmers, supervisor of sales engineering and agency approval for Haworth, Inc., another major office furniture manufacturer. The conventional process for creating particleboard, or pressboard, products uses a urea–formaldehyde resin to hold the sawdust pieces together, Black explains.

In the late 1980s, Black was in an ideal position to help cubicle manufacturers collect the detailed information about exactly how much formaldehyde—and other potential toxics such as VOCs—was being released from office cubicles. Her then-fledgling company, Air Quality Sciences, had a closed testing chamber, and Black had been measuring the airborne emissions of furnishings and building materials since the early 1980s as a professor of chemical and environmental health at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech. She built her first testing chamber in 1983 to help the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development devise methodologies and standards for testing and evaluating formaldehyde emissions in premanufactured mobile homes. Air Quality Sciences has built 50 testing chambers of all sizes, including the ones used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Other laboratories that perform testing similar to that conducted by Air Quality Sciences are the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina and Berkeley Analytical Laboratories in California.

Air Quality Sciences uses its largest chamber, which contains 1000 cubic feet of space, for testing office cubicles. The testing process involves placing the cubicles inside the closed chamber for a week and measuring the emissions after repeated air changes. These air changes are set so that they mimic the size of the facility in which the cubicles were designed to be used and the expected frequency of building air exchange. Air Quality Sciences uses thermal desorption, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry to analyze samples to discern individual VOCs in the parts-per-billion range. High-performance liquid chromatography is used to measure formaldehyde and other common irritants.

Some of the first tests revealed that the relief holes cut into the back of many cubicles to stop the pressboard surfaces from warping were serving as escape holes for formaldehyde, Black recalls. The need to reduce formaldehyde and VOC emissions inspired Haworth to replace its urea formaldehyde veneers with ones made of polyvinyl acetate and to change to a water-based adhesive to apply fabrics to the cubicle walls, says Jim Kozminski, senior project engineer in the company’s environment department.

In other cases, companies found new sources of formaldehyde. “We initially focused on the particleboard, but we found that there were still issues surfacing,” Rinard recalls. Continued testing revealed that the acid-catalyzed finishes on Steelcase’s cubicles were producing formaldehyde, Rinard says. Some additional sleuthing revealed that sunlight was the culprit. It caused the finishes to cure and generate formaldehyde, he says. Steelcase ultimately persuaded the coating manufacturer to reformulate it.

The fact that many of the components in most office cubicles are made by outside vendors complicates the challenge that furniture manufacturers face, Black says. For example, because fiberglass can contain varying amounts of formaldehyde, furniture manufacturers usually stipulate that the fiberglass they purchase can contain no more than a certain percentage, she says. “If fiberglass is undercured, it can produce formaldehydes. If it’s over-cured, it produces trimethylamines,” Rinard explains.

Now that greenness and low emissions have become marketable advantages (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2004, 38, 222A), office furniture companies have become more reliant on testing to ensure that their products perform as expected. In fact, some companies have purchased their own testing chambers. Indoor air quality is a major component of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Although the LEED rating system was initially developed for new buildings (Environ. Sci. Technol. 1998, 32, 412A–414A), USGBC has also promulgated standards for major renovations, existing buildings, and commercial interiors. In LEED’s complicated equation for green building designations, 23–29% of the available points are associated with indoor air.

All of these programs are contributing to the rapidly growing market for certifiably low-polluting office furniture and products, says Henning Bloech, director of communications for the Greenguard Environmental Institute, a nonprofit organization that Black founded to develop standards for certifying low emissions claims for manufactured products. Organizations such as Greenguard Environmental Insitute and Scientific Certification Systems certify that products meet the air emission requirements stipulated by programs such as LEED and Germany’s Blue Angel.

The certifications provided by organizations like GREENGUARD are important because “there are hundreds of building materials and furnishings that are being promoted as being green,” said Lynn Simon of Simon & Associates, a green building consulting firm, at the EnvironDesign Conference held in New York City last April. Not all of these green claims hold up, she stresses. “Greenwashing’ is rampant,” adds her colleague, Miriam Landman.

The process of obtaining a GREENGUARD certification ensures that the chemicals emitted by the tested product meet national and international guidelines, including those developed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is sufficiently demanding that many of the companies Black works with have a difficult time maintaining their certifications, she says. These difficulties are often traced to problems with outside product suppliers or manufacturing changes, she explains. For example, in order to ensure that Steelcase consistently was supplied with fiberglass produced in the “very narrow band where fiberglass can be cured and meet GREENGUARD requirements,” Rinard says that his company worked with its fiberglass supplier to produce a new formulation.

Even the greenest office cubicles usually emit 200–300 different chemicals, says Black. By the end of a week of testing, that number has usually declined to 30–50. In addition to the inevitable formaldehyde—and aldehydes associated with it, like hexanol and nonanol—higher-molecular-weight chemicals, such as pinene and other terpenes, are also commonly found, she says.

GreenGuard uses the emission-rate data to project the levels of emissions to which the cubicles’ occupants would be exposed anywhere from one week to six months later.

Products that carry the GREENGUARD certification label have emissions that are 60% lower, on average, than those of conventionally produced products, Black says. Most of these products do not cost any more than uncertified products, Black and Reardon concur. In fact, the LEED certification process “is moving toward becoming a standard of care, something that’s expected,” she says. The industry is driv[ing] toward lower and lower emissions from products,” Reardon agrees.

In fact, the furniture industry is actually going beyond LEED at this point, says Mark Bonnema, a senior Design for Environment engineer for Haworth. Both Steelcase and Haworth are working with Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart to use their “cradle-to-cradle” (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2003, 37, 434A–441A) approach to designing office furniture. “We have switched from a mindset of considering off-gases to the McDonough–Braungart approach of designing products well up-front,” Kozminski says. To date, however, none of the largest office furniture manufacturers has introduced a product that is based on cradle-to-cradle principles, Reardon says. But Bonnema promises that “what you’re going to see in the next five years is much more fundamental changes that will have a very large impact.”

—KELLYN S. BETTS