The "wood" holding up our homes, covering our cabinets and supporting our carpet is often a toxic mix of formaldehyde resins that bind together wood particles and plywood. While not considered dangerous at very low levels (below 0.1 part per million), the suspected carcinogen may rise to levels three times higher in homes or offices where new wood products are off-gassing urea-formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds.
Safer solutions have been slow to come to market, so artist Christine Lee, a resident at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Art Department’s Wood Program in 2010, invented one from the industry’s trash. Teaming up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lee and engineer John Hunt began turning mountains of scrap wood designated for mulch into a new type of board exhibiting properties very similar to today’s manufactured wood boards (such as particle board or medium-density fiberboard—MDF).
The Forest Products Laboratory, part of the agency overseeing much of the nation’s forests, says the new composite boards are formed by compressing discarded sawdust with wet-forming and heat-pressing techniques. They can withstand the strains of conventional MDF without using any adhesives or formaldehyde. They are also entirely biodegradable and recyclable, says Lee whose work with Hunt was presented at the Building Materials Reuse Association’s DECON 11 conference.
The first applications, however, are pure art. Lee lead an exhibition at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts called By-Product Becomes Product inviting five artists who worked with the new wood material. Their creations range from benches with woven planks to a series of birdhouses and a pickup truck cap. The material was not under much strain (it was neither coated to protect from rain, nor under much load), but Lee says the next step is to start introducing the material as a practical substitute for its conventional but toxic counterparts.
"Not many people know about the health hazards," says artist Lee, but she’s working hard to see her art come off the wall, and become the wall itself.