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Is MDF Dangerous?

Formaldehyde leaking from improperly sealed MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) can irritate the lungs, mucous membranes, eyes and skin.
A face mask and eye protection are recommended when working with MDF.
A man working with MDF.
MDF is used to make wallboard.
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  • Written By: Kris Roudebush
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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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.”

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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.

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anon928155
Post 9

I worked with it for about 20 minutes at school today. Am I going to get cancer?

serenesurface
Post 8

@ankara-- When it comes to dust, MDF is no more dangerous than say oak or timber.

If woodworkers want to avoid respiratory problems and cancer in the future, the best thing to do is to use a respirator when working with any kind of wood product.

burcidi
Post 7

Oh wow, I didn't even know that MDF could cause cancer. The only danger of MDF I knew about was how heavy it is. They often say that if a piece of MDF falls on you, you will be severely hurt and maybe even killed. I guess it can kill in more ways than one.

bluedolphin
Post 6

@anon191352-- I can't believe that your school doesn't have you wear a mask when you're working with MDF. I think you're okay for now but definitely wear a mask in the future.

I think more than the formaldehyde in the MDF board, it's the dust that is dangerous. Don't get me wrong, formaldehyde is a terrible substance too, but so is dust, especially when it's so fine that you don't even realize you're breathing it. And that's what happens with MDF. It releases an unbelievable amount of fine dust in the air when it's being cut. If you don't work outdoors and if you're not wearing a mask, it's going to go straight to the lungs.

betterdays
Post 5

@anon191352: Wear a dust mask! I was exposed to MDF dust over a six week period, developed flu like symptoms and had to go to the doctor for tests. They found I had asthma, an inactive thyroid gland, damaged mucus membranes and contact dermatitis on my hands and face.

anon191352
Post 4

As a secondary school student, I have to work with MDF as part of my woodwork lessons. At school we only wear goggles and an apron. I have been working with it twice a week since about January. Is it possible that the dust has damaged my health? If so, is the damage irreversible? In future should I wear a face mask for working with MDF? Thanks in advance.

jholcomb
Post 3

@EdRick - I don't necessarily disagree with you about real wood being more ecological, but I've bought MDF board furniture often. I take good care of it and don't use it for more than it's designed for (e.g., I don't overload a particle board bookcase). If you don't have a fortune or a ton of time to spend looking around, MDF is just too handy to ignore. (And I don't throw it away--I sell or freecycle to give items as long a life cycle as possible.)

EdRick
Post 2

@robbie21 - I feel the same way. If you're concerned about MDF, real wood is the way to go.

Now, I can hear you protesting that wood costs more, which is true. But you can scour classified ads, Craigslist, and junk shops for secondhand furniture. If you're at all handy, you can spiff these up with a fresh coat of paint.

Going the secondhand route is more ecological in a lot of ways. It keeps something out of the landfill and keeps something from being manufactured. Fight the disposable culture!

robbie21
Post 1

It seems like everything is made of MDF boards these days. What can you do on a budget? It doesn't sound like MDF is particularly dangerous for the owner, but I hate the idea of buying something that can be toxic for the people who make it. Especially because it doesn't always last very long.

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