Materials Air Quality Testing

CARB Formaldehyde Chamber Materials Air Quality Test

Materials Air Quality Testing

Since news broke that Lumber Liquidators may have distributed composite wood flooring in California that did not meet California Air Resource Board (CARB) formaldehyde emission standards, we’ve been getting lots of questions about materials air quality testing. Questions are coming from all angles. Some folks are interested in joining the class action law suit, some distributors and installation companies are worried about blowback from their customers, and then there’s the home owners who just want to know if their home has unusually high levels of formaldehyde. Everyone is concerned, and it seems few know exactly what to ask. This blog aims to explain the difference between materials air quality testing and bulk materials testing.

Materials air quality testing

Does this Plywood Contain Formaldehyde? Meet CARB Emissions Standards?

Air Quality Testing vs. Bulk Materials Chamber Testing

Air testing” generally refers to sampling ambient air. This can be done indoors or outdoors. Air testing can tell you what is in the air at that moment in time. Some air testing is instantaneous and measures what’s in the air for a moment, other air testing can be done over a longer period of time and shows the total or average exposure level over time.

We most commonly test air using real-time meters for temperature, humidity, CO, CO2, particle counts, combustible gases, etc. However, for accurate measurements of gases (VOCs) at low levels, or for the identification and quantification of microscopic particulates we must collect samples in the field and have them analyzed at a laboratory. Some forms of lab analysis provide value in determining if there is a problem, and identifying how far the problem extends and exactly what contaminants are present.

You need air quality testing if you want to know what is in the air you breathe.

Materials air quality testing

Air Sampling for Viable Mold – Pitri Dish

Bulk Material Testing” generally refers to testing solid materials. Bulk material tests may include testing a piece of painted drywall for lead and asbestos, or soil testing for heavy metals, pesticides, or petroleum products. Within this category of lab analysis we would also include testing flooring samples for formaldehyde emissions. There are many different types of formaldehyde emission tests, and you have to know what reference standard to which to compare the results. In the case of the Lumber Liquidators fiasco, it’s the California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards. This type of materials testing involves placing a bulk sample into a chamber and monitoring what off-gasses over twenty hours.

Bulk material testing is required if you’re trying to demonstrate that a regulated material does not meet emission standards, or if you’re trying to connect what you found in the ambient air to what materials are in the building.

Knowing what testing will provide the most value to the case is the job of an Industrial Hygienist (IH).

Materials air quality testing

LEED Indoor Air Quality IAQ Testing – Using Summa Canister

What does LEED IAQ & Materials Air Quality Testing Tell You?

LEED IAQ Air Quality Testing

  • Evaluates only the following parameters in ambient air:
    • Formaldehyde
    • Fine particulates (PM10)
    • Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs), and
    • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Involves very few sampling locations per building (1 sample < 25,000 sf)
  • Involves a site visit and sampling over a 4-hr period
  • Might indicate whether or not there is a significant IAQ problem

Bulk Materials Testing

  • Can identify just about any contaminant, including formaldehyde
  • Quantifies emissions at very low levels
  • Verifies only what that specific material or material assembly is emitting
  • Does not require a site visit, but can be quite costly
Materials air quality testing

Air Quality Testing at USGBC GreenBuild

What Air Testing and Bulk Material Tests Don’t Tell You

  • Air testing may reveal relatively high formaldehyde levels indoors, but ambient air quality testing will not tell you where the formaldehyde is coming from.
  • Air testing only tells you what was in the air at a certain point in time, and often only provides an average exposure level over time.
  • Bulk material testing may reveal a material is emitting relatively high levels of formaldehyde, but it cannot tell you if levels in indoor air exceed any Exposure Limits in the US.
  • Bulk materials tests identify and quantify what is emitted from a particular material (or material assembly) at a particular point in time, but it’s only indicative of the time the sample is in the chamber. It is not an accurate representation of emission characteristics from 1 month ago, or what it will emit 1 year from now.

Materials air quality testing is complicated stuff and not for the layperson. If you have questions about the air quality in your home or workplace, or if you wonder if a specific material might be causing indoor air quality problems, please give Healthy Building Science a call to:

  1. Help develop a hypothesis and testing regimen appropriate for your case
  2. Coordinate air quality and bulk materials testing
  3. Interpret lab results and put the results into perspective
  4. Formulate an action plan to improve IAQ – if there is a problem

9 Responses to “Materials Air Quality Testing”

  1. It’s interesting to learn that material testing may not just be limited to products such as parts and the likes but also to those products that have something to do with air. As your article suggested, there is this “air testing” that can be done to sample ambient air in different conditions. That sounds like a very neat and complicated type of testing which would require a controlled facility with plenty of equipment. I’ll try reading more about this as it seems to be very amusing as to what results may come from these tests. Thanks!

  2. Alex Stadtner says :

    Hi Kairi,
    Thanks for the note. Indeed, air quality testing and healthy material testing is an interesting line of inquiry. If you’ve been concerned and can afford to get testing – go for it. Worst case you confirm your fears and now have actionable information from which to make a decision. Best case you put your fears to rest and get peace of mind. Either way is really a “win.”
    Best of luck,

  3. Kairi Gainsborough says :

    It is interesting that some testing is instantaneous while other types of test are made to determine the air quality over a period of time. I agree that these test do seem pretty complicated, and they would be hard to do myself. I’ve been worried about the air quality in my old house, so I guess I should have it professionally tested.

  4. Alex Stadtner says :

    Hello Delores,

    Thanks for the note. It is true that doing due diligence and regularly testing air quality and building materials testing is one way to reduce your liability for health-related problems and claims from tenants and occupants.

    What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of what a business spends – usually more than 80% – goes towards paying people. When you can improve “health and productivity” by one percent, the financial benefit far outweighs the benefits of energy efficiency audits and improvements that are usually selected over healthy building inspections and improvements. The tide does seem to be shifting with the recent attention to health from USGBC National and the Northern California’s efforts with the Building Health Initiative.


  5. Delores Lyon says :

    Thanks for sharing these different air testing procedures and their respective advantages. As the owner of an office building, air quality is really important to me. In fact, I think it would be a good idea for me to have materials air quality testing every few months or so. If it can prevent health hazards, then it is definitely worth it!

  6. Jerry Mathew says :

    wow, great to read this blog.

  7. Alex Stadtner says :

    Thanks, Peter.
    The difference between “ambient air quality testing” and “bulk material air quality testing” is important to understand when a suspicious material in involved in an IAQ case. The two testing methods can be used together to attempt to draw a direct line of causation, but this is often very challenging and involves lots of testing. For instance in the case of high-formaldehyde flooring affecting the air quality of a home, first you must demonstrate high levels of formaldehyde in indoor air. Then you must somehow demonstrate that it’s only the flooring contributing to the elevated levels of formaldehyde. That is a tough hypothesis to prove, considering how many other building materials and furnishings in a home may contain formaldehyde. Not to mention naturally occurring formaldehyde or exterior sources of formaldehyde.

  8. Peter Libeu says :

    Very nice article. This helps clarify what “testing” means, especially for the layperson. Thanks for posting !

  9. air testing says :

    Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author.

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