ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. - Amy Klobuchar needed to outfit her apartment when she moved to Washington as a U.S. senator.
So the Minnesota Democrat headed to a nearby store "looking for cheap furniture" and bought an assemble-it-yourself "fake antique" cabinet.
"It smelled weird" when she removed it from the box, she said. However, it began to become pungent as her first Washington summer began to heat up. She returned the item and received a refund, but that is just the beginning of her story.
Klobuchar is convinced the smell was from formaldehyde, which most foreign-produced composite wood products (like plywood, oriented strand board and fiberboard) contain.
Formaldehyde, the same chemical that teachers used to preserve frogs destined for dissecting, makes people sick with nausea and burning eyes. It causes breathing problems. And medical experts think it can cause cancer. Most famously, it affected many Hurricane Katrina survivors living in federal trailers.
With Klobuchar's experience as inspiration, she and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced a bill to limit the amount of formaldehyde gas that can be emitted from wood products. The American composite wood industry on its own abandoned formaldehyde, but that is not the case in many countries that account for 80 percent of composite wood sold in the United States.
China alone holds 55 percent of the market, and Chinese products use formaldehyde as glue to hold wood particles together.
"We believe it would help the American wood industry as well as consumers," Klobuchar said Monday at a suburban Twin Cities Home Depot store.
Composite wood is used in almost all American homes in products ranging from shelves to walls.
Executive Director Wayne Brandt of Minnesota Forest Industries said that about 40,000 Minnesota jobs are in the composite wood products industry, which annually puts $7 billion into the state economy as the fourth-largest manufacturing sector. Most workers are at fewer than a half-dozen plants in north-central and northeastern Minnesota, but smaller operations are found throughout the state, Brandt said.
Klobuchar, standing in front of a stack of oriented strand board from a Bemidji plant, said that forcing foreign manufacturers to use products other than formaldehyde to make composite wood products would make their prices comparable to American products. However, the senator, Brandt and other experts could not say how much of a price impact the legislation would have.
"It's a very significant issue for that segment of the industry," Brandt said.
Klobuchar said she is on two key Senate committees for the proposal, and gave it a good shot at passing.
"I don't think we know of any opposition," Brandt added.
California has enacted its own version of the legislation and Klobuchar said that no early problems have been reported.
The bill, which Klobuchar expects to be tacked on to a related measure, requires testing of wood products beginning in 2012.
Health leaders back the proposal.
"By significantly reducing formaldehyde in composite wood products that are who widely used in building materials and furniture products, the Klobuchar and Crapo bill will make our homes healthier," said Ralph Scott of the Alliance for Healthy Homes.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.