OTC Employees and Formaldehyde Exposure: Industrial Indiscipline or Corporate Irresponsibility

By Too Edwin Freeman

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 29, 2003

"Never contradict anybody" --Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Jefferson.

Recently, a news story (http://allafrica.com/stories/200304040207.html)appeared on the allafrica.com Website, which caught my attention. The story, written by Moses M. Zeogar, a reporter for The NEWS Newspaper (published in Monrovia), centered around the grievances of some employees of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, about health problems which they blame on the work environment at the company‘s plywood manufacturing facilities. The workers specifically complained about respiratory problems that they attribute to daily exposure to formaldehyde, a chemical allegedly used by the OTC in the manufacture of plywood. One of the workers, Joanna M. Sawmadal, according to the story, has been diagnosed with "chemical pneumonitis following continuous exposure to toxic chemical on the job." Symptoms of Ms. Sawmadal's illness include "persistent coughing and occasional vomiting of blood." The reporter also wrote: "Many workers, mainly youngsters, who spoke to The NEWS on the basis of anonymity in Buchanan recently, complained of respiratory infections including constant chest burns, coughs and occasional vomiting of blood among others. He continued, "The workers explained that toxic chemicals, especially formaldehyde, are diluted and mixed with flour to produce glue for the binding of wood chips to produce the plywood."

Apparently, in an attempt to get OTC's response to the employees' allegations, the reporter contacted the company's Public Relations Consultant (PRC), Gabriel Baccus Matthews. To quote the reporter, "OTC's Public Relations Consultant Gabriel Baccus Matthews, in a telephone interview yesterday refuted the workers' claims and said the Corporation does not use formaldehyde to produce plywood at the factory." The reporter further wrote that OTC's PRC "clarified that the glue used to bind the chips of wood is not toxic but contains a minute percentage of formaldehyde content. Mr. Matthews said he does not believe that the minute content is capable of causing a health hazzard (sic)".

The reporter wrote, referencing a fact-finding trip to the company's facilities by a group of Legislators, "Mr. Matthews said when he accompanied the Senate delegation at the factory two weeks ago, it was observed that the workers were not using the nose protectors." Referring to the workers, the reporter quotes PRC Mathews as saying: "They had the masks on their heads rather than on their noses." In yet another attempt by PRC Matthews to dismiss the workers' allegations against OTC, the reporter writes: "He [Matthews] said the parent company of the OTC in Indonesia and other plywood factories elsewhere use the same kind of glue to produce plywood without causing any problem for their workers. He [Matthews] however admitted that the glue does have a very bad odor but could not say whether it has the potential to pose health problem." Finally, the reporter wrote: "At the same time, the OTC Public Relations Consultant has blamed the situation at the factory on what he called ‘industrial indiscipline.' "

The first question that came to my mind after reading the story was: "Where's the truth?" In one part of the story, according to PRC Matthews, OTC does not use formaldehyde in the manufacture of plywood. That sounds like a definitive answer until one reads further in the story, where the PRC "clarifies" that the company does use glue that "contains a minute percentage of formaldehyde content." Question: What is "minute," or better yet, how "minute" is "minute"? PRC Matthews also theorized that the "glue" is not toxic because, according to him, he does not believe that the "minute content is capable of causing a health hazard." I emphasize on the word "believe" because having read the comment, I couldn't help but wonder: Regardless of how beautiful Matthews' theory on toxicity might sound, what qualifies him in such matters? Is what he believes a necessary and/or sufficient condition for establishing toxicity? Was he speaking as a chemist, a toxicologist, a public health practitioner, or a "what" Still, in yet another part of the story, PRC Matthews alluded to the fact that employees were given "nose protectors," which they wore over their heads instead of over their noses, as allegedly observed by the PRC when he accompanied a group of Legislators on a visit to the factory. It is for this reason that PRC Matthews concluded that the situation at the factory could be blamed on what he refers to as "industrial indiscipline." Reading these remarks attributed to this Public Relations Consultant brought even more questions to mind. What was the purpose of these nose protectors (whatever they are), if not to "prevent" the employees from inhaling something they aren't suppose to inhale? If whatever "glue" they're using is not a health hazard, then what is the use of the so-called "nose protectors" - mere inconvenience thrown in the mix of the tropical heat and humidity?

Since I have no idea what exactly goes on at the OTC facilities in Buchanan, and have no intentions of going there to find out, for obvious reasons, I thought the best way to answer the myriad of questions, is to refer to science and technology. My first clue came from PRC Matthews' comment that, "the parent company of the OTC in Indonesia and other plywood factories elsewhere use the same kind of glue to produce plywood..." So Let's begin with the plywood industry.


"There is one thing more vital to science than intelligent methods; and that is, the sincere desire to find out the truth, whatever it may be."

--Charles Sanders Pierce

Plywood, originally invented in 1909, is basically a composite structural panel manufactured by bonding (gluing together) veneer (thin layers of wood). Plywood adhesives are synthetic glues made from chemical raw materials by a process that polymer chemists refer to as condensation polymerization. Condensation polymerization is a process in which two molecules (with at least two reactive groups) react to form a larger molecule, with possible elimination of a small molecule, such as water. The reaction continues in this manner, with larger molecules reacting with other larger or small molecules until almost all of the reactants are used up, thus resulting in mostly large molecules (a polymer). This is in contrast to addition polymerization, which involves rapid chain reactions in which the reactive species are the chain ends, to which molecules add, thus allowing the chains to grow and become larger molecules (a polymer). For example, nylons are made by condensation polymerization, while rubbers are made by addition polymerization.

Since 1950, the universal adhesives of choice for bonding the layers of veneer together to form plywood have been made from formaldehyde-based resins. Prior art involved the use of proteinaceous glues. A typically adhesive for manufacturing plywood is a solution of the condensation products of phenol and formaldehyde in aqueous sodium hydroxide (water and caustic soda). This particular type is referred to as a phenol-formaldehyde resin (also called a phenolic resin). Others include urea-formaldehyde (obtained from urea and formaldehyde) and melamine-formaldehyde (obtained from melamine and formaldehyde). The latter two are often referred to as amino resins. These polymeric materials, collectively referred to as reactive adhesives, belong to a general class of resins called thermosetting resins. They cure (harden) by the action of heat or catalyst, thus providing bond strengths that are generally greater than the wood itself.

Thermosetting resins or plastics are rigid, hard, dimensionally stable and heat resistant. Consequently, they are used in such mechanically and thermally demanding applications as brake lining and handles for cooking utensils, among others. For example, if you ever wondered how the sand on sandpaper is held to the paper, a phenolic resin adhesive is the answer. In contrast to thermosetting materials, thermoplastic materials (another class of plastics) are flexible and soft and can be re-formed under heat and/or pressure. To illustrate these distinctions, "super glue" (a cyanoacrylate) reacts by addition polymerization, and it is a thermoplastic adhesive. Phenolics on the other hand are formed by condensation polymerization and are thermosetting. Okay, back to OTC and plywood.

Thus far, we have identified three types of formaldehyde-based resins for use in the making of plywood adhesives. The end use application of a particular plywood determines which type of these resins is used in the adhesive formulation. For example, urea-Formaldehyde is used for interior grade plywood, while phenol-formaldehyde is used for exterior and marine grade plywood. The reason for this is chemistry. In addition to it's high strength and durability, the phenol-formaldehyde bond is unaffected by mold or fungus, and is highly resistant to water -- not even boiling water affects it. Urea-formaldehyde adhesives on the other hand, are not as strong or moisture resistant. For medium density fireboards, the more expensive melamine based adhesives are used. Consumption of phenol-formaldehyde resins for example, totals over one billion pounds/year in the United States alone. By far the largest application for these phenolic resins is for use as adhesives in the plywood industry. During the formulation of plywood adhesives, besides caustic soda and water, flour is added as an extender (softener), and fillers (for reinforcement) as well as other chemicals or additives for various functions.

Plywood Adhesives Chemistry - A Primer

Industrial phenol-formaldehyde chemistry, though a very complex process, can be separated into stages. In a typical one-stage resin, an excess of formaldehyde (typically a solution in water) is reacted with phenol in the presence of an alkaline (base) catalyst (e.g. caustic soda). It is important to note here, that for every molecule of phenol, there are 3 possible reactive sites for the formaldehyde to react; in the case of substituted phenols, there are two. The reactants are allowed to partially react by heating for a short period of time. At this point, not all of the sites available on the phenol have reacted with formaldehyde (there‘s still free formaldehyde in the product). This reaction results in a water-soluble, low molecular weight polymer often referred to as a resole resin. After mixing in other additives, as desired, the adhesive can be applied to the adherents at this point. Upon further heating of the laminate (adherent and adhesive), under pressure, the low molecular weight polymeric adhesive undergoes dehydration (loss of water) and crosslinking (formation of a network) through further reaction between the remaining reactive sites on the phenol and the free formaldehyde to form a hard, insoluble, infusible network (a thermoset) which bonds wood or other products such as paper together.

Alternatively, for a two-stage resin (often referred to as Novalac resin), an excess of phenol, in this instance, is first reacted with formaldehyde to obtain what's referred to as an "A-stage" phenolic. At this point, the adhesive is more like a thermoplastic (soft, flexible, soluble), than a thermoset (hard, rigid, insoluble). This low molecular weight resin can then be sold to the end-user. The end-user would then compound (mix in) other ingredients such as fillers (minerals, usually), extenders (i.e. flour), and a curing agent (hardener) with the resin to obtain what's referred to as a "B-staged" resin. This "B-staged resin can be dissolved in a solvent (liquid) and then used to impregnate (soak) sheets of tissue paper. After evaporating the solvent, the dry sheets are then placed between the layers of wood and heated in a press, where the resin first melts on heating and then hardens, thus bonding the layers of wood together to form plywood. So where does the excess formaldehyde come from, you ask? Well, the curing agent (usually hexamethylene tetramine) is basically a product of formaldehyde and ammonia. During the curing or hardening process (by heating) of these materials, this curing agent first reacts with water (from dehydration of the adhesive caused by heating), causing it to decompose (break down). The decomposition products are formaldehyde (that's the excess or additional), which reacts further to give a crosslinked (hardened) material, and ammonia (a base), which acts as the catalyst for the crosslinking reaction. So, though the starting adhesive material might have contained less formaldehyde to begin with, one can see how excess formaldehyde is generated and used. Without the additional formaldehyde one cannot obtain the highly crosslinked network necessary for high strength. I did promise a primer, didn't I? Well, there you have it.

Facts about Formaldehyde

"One of the greatest tragedies of life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts."

--Benjamin Franklin

August Wilhem von Hofman, a German chemist, is credited for discovering formaldehyde in 1867, though he never did isolate it in its pure form during his lifetime. The famous German chemist, Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, was the first to isolate pure formaldehyde in 1892, barely a year after Hofman's death (poor guy!). Formaldehyde is manufactured by oxidizing methanol (an alcohol) with air in the presence of a metal catalyst at very high temperatures (in the range of 400-650 degrees Celsius). The catalyst can be copper, silver, or molybdeum alloy. Formaldehyde (formula: CH2O) is a colorless gas, that's readily soluble in water (often called "formalin") and has a very strong, distinctive odor.

Formaldehyde is considered a very dangerous chemical! It is classified as a human carcinogen and has been linked to nasal and lung cancer, with possible links to brain cancer and leukemia. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has determined that "formaldehyde may reasonable be anticipated to be a carcinogen." In addition to its use in the plywood industry, other industrial uses for formaldehyde include the production of such products as paper, fabrics, fertilizer and synthetic resins. It is also used as a preservative (low levels) in such household products as antiseptics, and cosmetics. It is common knowledge that formaldehyde is also used in the preservation of human remains.

The Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for formaldehyde according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the United States, is 0.75 parts per million (ppm) averaged over an eight-hour day. This means that if a person breathes in one million parts of air averaged over an eight-hour period, the formaldehyde content of such air should not exceed three-quarters of one part. It has been reported that short-term exposure to formaldehyde can be fatal. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the United States, formaldehyde is dangerous to life and health at levels of 20 parts per million (ppm) or higher. Fortunately, the odor threshold is low enough that irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes will occur before these levels are achieved. Drinking formaldehyde results in severe pain, vomiting, coma, and possibly death. Symptoms of low-level exposure to formaldehyde include runny nose, sore throat, cough, dermatitis, sleeping difficulties, headache, fatigue, breathing difficulties, sinus irritation, chest pain, frequent nausea, bronchitis, and decreased lung capacity. People with asthma are likely to be more sensitive to these effects. The most common means of exposure to formaldehyde is by inhalation. Signs of acute exposure include abdominal pain, anxiety, coma, convulsions, diarrhea, and respiratory problems such as bronchitis, pneumonia or pulmonary edema.

Daily long-term exposure to formaldehyde in air may cause dry and sore throat, inflammation of the lung and bronchial tubes, and other breathing problems. Continuous long-term exposure may also affect liver and kidney functions. Problems associated with skin exposure include dry, cracked skin, skin blisters, and brown, soft fingernails. These irritations are exacerbated by heat and sweat. While reproductive and developmental effects of formaldehyde are not fully understood, production of abnormal sperm and spontaneous abortions have been linked to high levels of exposure. As with all chemicals, the length of exposure, amount of exposure and route of exposure (i.e. inhaling, drinking, touching or eating) are factors to consider when determining the health risks. It is also important to consider an individual's health, heredity and personal habits such as drinking or smoking.

"A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins." --Benjamin Franklin

Firstly, the claim that OTC does not use formaldehyde in the manufacture of plywood is bunkum. Such comment can only be construed as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public, or simply a ridiculous statement from an indolent bureaucrat who is not conversant with the facts as they relate to the plywood industry. Unless OTC has developed and patented some new adhesives for manufacturing plywood, in which case their intellectual property (IP) portfolio will be the envy of the industry, they must be using formaldehyde. Formaldehyde based adhesives have been a mainstay in the plywood industry since the 50‘s. Even the major players in the industry, e.g. Georgia-Pacific, still use formaldehyde-based adhesives. These include phenol-formaldehyde, urea-formaldehyde and melamine-formaldehyde. One doesn't have to be a "rocket scientist" or in this case a polymer scientist to realize from the names of these adhesives, that they do contain formaldehyde. My guess, based on the complaint of the employees, is that OTC is using single stage (resole) resins. To quote the very opinionated and often controversial Charles Barkley, "I may be wrong, but I doubt it." If my guess is right, that means, for goodness' sake these poor employees are working directly with this stuff! Bottom line: formaldehyde-based adhesives are at the very core of the plywood industry.

Secondly, the notion that the "glue" used by OTC contains "minute percentage of formaldehyde content" is not supported by polymer chemistry. The adhesives used in the industry are thermoset adhesives, which are synthesized by condensation polymerization. Anyone familiar with the mechanism of phenolic resin chemistry, for example, knows that synthesis requires the use of excess formaldehyde to phenol ratio in order to obtain a reasonably crosslinked (rigid) network. Formaldehyde is not used as a catalyst, a preservative or just an additive in the synthesis and/or formulation of these adhesives; which would require that it be used in "minute percentage." Formaldehyde is a constitutive part of the resin, and the chemistry requires its use in excess to obtain the desired properties.

The third and major conclusion from the analysis of the facts detailed in here, is the clear corroboration of the claims by these poor Liberian workers at OTC that they are becoming sick from the effects of exposure to formaldehyde. The symptoms reported by these poor people are archetypal indications of formaldehyde exposure, as substantiated by the facts plainly revealed in this article. The situation will only get worse with continuous daily long-term exposure. Their complaints are clearly buttressed by the facts as they relate to the plywood industry.

Finally, the comment by OTC's PRC that others elsewhere use the same adhesive as OTC without causing problems for their workers, must be taken with a grain of salt. It's true that there are manufacturing facilities around the world that use even more toxic chemicals to make some of the things we all use on a daily basis. However, in most places there are laws that mandate companies to follow certain safety guidelines that safeguard the health of their workers and the communities in which they operate. It would be very interesting to know if the PRC has ever visited any of the facilities "elsewhere" to compare their safety protocols with those of the company he represents, before making such an assessment. I doubt if there's any peculiarity about the genetic or physiological makeup of OTC's Liberian employees that would make them more apt to "industrial indiscipline" (with all its connotations), than say, OTC's workers in Indonesia. Blaming the serious health problems being endured by the workers on what Matthews prefers to describe as "industrial indiscipline," to me, could be better characterized as corporate irresponsibility and indifference. These people are obviously caught in a quandary of either remaining unsuspecting victims of corporate greed run amok, or becoming unemployed. That anyone would deem them liable for the predicament in which they now find themselves, is unfair at best and crass at worst. I doubt that anybody, being fully aware of the dangers of exposure to any chemical, would choose to inappropriately don his or her protective gear.

The "nose protectors" the PRC refers to in his remarks sound, to me at least, like dust masks - dust masks are intended to prevent the inhalation of particulates, not gases. If indeed these employees were issued dust masks, then keeping them on their heads is not such a bad idea, because such masks probably stand a better chance of protecting the employees from sunrays than from the inhalation of formaldehyde. What they need are the appropriate respirators and safety apparels that provide proper protection from the kinds of chemicals to which they are exposed. They also need the appropriate education in the proper use of these safety equipment. For example, a respirator that includes multi-gas cartridges and provides respiratory protection from certain organic vapors, as well as chlorine, hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, ammonia, methylamine and formaldehyde, sells for about $20.00. Certainly, the life of poor Ms. Joanna Sawmadal is worth more than that.

A better public relations effort by the PRC would to use his leverage by urging the company to develop safety protocols and provide proper education to the workers to ensure a safe work environment, as an alternative to holding them responsible for circumstances over which they apparently have no control.