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Ask the Architect

Some details on cabinets


Q. We’re trying to do a bigger kitchen and make an office, since I’m now probably working only from home. To save on cabinets, we’re looking at several options, including cheaper, imported ones. I did some research, and I’m concerned about whether the Chinese-made cabinets we might get are safe to use. I assume that they don’t give off harmful fumes like a friend told me about. Is this true and what can you tell me?

A. By “cheaper,” I’m hoping you mean less costly, not less value for your money. As you spend more time at home, this could be a real problem, but it isn’t what you’ve been led to believe. Your concern about Chinese-made cabinets is based on rumor and underlying hysteria more than on fact.

The concern is based on a few past dilemmas, such as when our domestic construction industry became so busy that there was a gypsum wallboard shortage, and China sent under-regulated boards into our market that contained cancer-causing radon. The fact is that the whole cabinet-producing industry had to make a change when it was discovered that the most common glues used to manufacture medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, and plywood have formaldehyde as a primary component. Although sealants are used to prevent or limit off-gassing of formaldehyde, California, America’s main receiver of imported cabinets from China through its ports, developed laws and standards to control and eliminate volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

In case you thought China was the only concern, cabinets made all over the Western Hemisphere, from North, Central and South America, also used to have high levels of toxic formaldehyde in the adhesives. What you might want to consider is that California really stepped up in the interest of public safety, developing guidelines under their Carb 2 compliance standards. Sadly, the most recent United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement attempted to set standards, but Chinese companies have found that they can skirt the standards — not regarding toxicity, but tariffs — just by the way woods are purchased and handled.

The trade agreement didn’t go far enough in protecting the wood-products industry, and China has, once again, taken clear advantage of the market as a nonparticipant in the agreement. It can buy wood from countries that defy sustainable forest practices, contributing to environmental problems. Just by adding one outer veneer of birch to hardwoods, while the opposite face is a more expensive species, such as in flooring, China pays no export duty instead of the 8 percent it should, defeating the tariff altogether. Ironically, the practice also affects our competing birch wood industry and is a loss for related industries, such as oak and maple producers.

You, as a purchaser, buy products, unaware that so much time, and your money, went into preventing countries from unbalancing our trade, only to watch it happen anyway. Cheaper may mean less costly, but cost to our economy and environment are also a value to consider. Good luck!

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.