Reader Question: Is MDF dangerous?

Hi Dr chemical
My name is Cliff I am 52 years old and have been a cabinet maker
since I was 16 years old, I have been working with MDF (medium density
fiberboard ) since 1984, over that time I have heard many rumors about MDF
being a carcinogen and that it is banned in various parts of the world,
whenever I work with a lot of it , especially the dust, I feel very I’ll , I
can feel it sucking the moisture out of my skin, and I get cold sores on my
lips, what do you know about MDF and how harmful it is?
Many thanks Cliff Mulroy.

Good question.

When thinking about chemical safety its important to understand that there is no connection whatever between whether a chemical is harmful and whether it is an irritant or has a strong smell.  For example, smelling salts has an extremely strong smell but is completely harmless.  Cyanide gas, on the other hand, has a very pleasant almond fragrance.

So the fact that it dries your lips and so on doesn’t mean much in terms of toxicity.

But it is indeed true that there are potential health concerns with MDF.  The reason is the formaldehyde resin that is used to bind it together.

Formaldehyde has long been suspected as being a carcinogen and is slowly being phased out of most products.

Having said that, however, it is at the less dangerous end of suspected carcinogens, and is certainly nowhere near as nasty as some of the chlorinated solvents that have now essentially disappeared from the market.

But of course it is very easy to find all sorts of outlandish claims, with some even saying it is the new asbestos.

This of course is nonsense.  Worst case scenario is that it is suspected of being mildly carcinogenic – just like lots of other things, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

Having said that, however, it’s probably a good idea to use it in a well ventilated area.


Food and Weight Loss #3

Many things are complex carbohydrates. Paper and wood for example, but you can’t eat them?

In terms of food, complex carbohydrates are generally starchy in nature, and there is no greater battleground than breakfasts cereals.  Let’s compare the information panels of two supposedly healthy breakfast cereals and see what they tell us – Weet-Bix and Vita Brits.

Weet-Bix is 67% carbohydrate with 3.3% sugar.  Vita Brits is also 67% carbohydrate but only 0.4% sugar.

Products with sugar this low are very rare.  Unfortunately our palate is used to sweet things and likes sugar in most things.

Stated simply, the Vita Brits is the best source of complex carbohydrate I have come across, although Weet-Bix is also pretty good.

So what’s so important about complex carbohydrates anyway.?

Well, we’ve seen that how our body runs on glycogen as fuel.  As it happens, there is only a certain level of glycogen that they body can tolerate.  If it gets below this, you essentially run out of fuel – a phenomenon that athletes (marathon runners in particular) refer to as “hitting the wall.”  – Where you lose all your energy, and even standing up and moving a few paces is an enormous chore.

If your blood glycogen gets too high, however, that can also cause problems, and so your body will have to remove glycogen.

It does this by supplying insulin, which essentially converts the glycogen to fat.

Now if glycogen can be converted to fat, then it makes sense to see that fat can be converted to glycogen.

So there are two potential sources of fuel (fat and complex carbohydrates).  If we have sufficient complex carbohydrates on board, our glycogen levels never get too high, and the body simply breaks down the complex carbohydrates as required, and fat doesn’t enter into the picture.

So in an ideal world we’d all eat food which was low in sugar and high in complex carbohydrates.

But in the real world that doesn’t happen of course – we eat too much sugar, it gets converted to fat, and we put on weight.

So how do we get rid of the fat, and cause it to be broken down?

More tomorrow.


Food and Weight Loss #2

Perhaps the biggest myth in terms of food and weight loss is the notion that to lose weight you simply need to reduce your food intake.

This is based on the energy in – energy out notion, and is the reason why some people become addicted to calorie counters.

It’s a myth because it’s an over-simplification that can result in exactly the opposite effect from that which was intended. That is, if your approach to losing weight is simply to eat less food, the result will be that you actually put weight on, as Oprah Winfrey famously found out.

It’s possible to think of your body as a chemical reactor that converts chemical energy into mechanical energy. Like a car your body needs fuel to move and do things. Your car runs on petrol; your body runs on glycogen.

That is, whatever food you eat, your body has to break it down to glycogen first, and it is this process that governs how or whether you gain weight or lose weight.

Glycogen is a carbohydrate, in fact the simplest carbohydrate. Its formula is C6H12O6. This is called a saccharide unit and glycogen is therefore termed a monosaccharide.

If there are two saccharide units (such as table sugar), it is called a disaccharide.So its formula is (C6H12O6) x 2 = C12H24O12

And as the number of saccharide units increases, the ratio of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen increase in the same ratio.

Sinple carbohydrates contain one or two saccharide units, and complex carbohydrates may contain hundreds.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some complex carbohydrates.



Food and Weight Loss #1

Fat is a chemical.

So if we want to remove it, we must first understand what it is, and how it got there in the first place.

In other words, the fat is the result of chemical reactions, and its removal is also the result of chemical reactions.

So we are going to delve into the incredible world of the incredible chemistry of the incredible body.  The reason I used incredibly three times in the last sentence is simply because the human body is a chemical reactor that is complex beyond the capacity of the English language to describe.

In fact let me say this – the human body is the most complex thing in existence.  There is simply nothing in existence that parallels the human body for complexity in terms of its chemistry. So the explanations that I’ll be going through in subsequent days have been simplified greatly, for the simple reason that I don’t want peoples’ eyes to glaze over as they read my posts.

So we will look at the chemistry of certain foods, as well as the chemistry of bodies and the way they interact.  Part of this will be looking at how to interpret food labels, to work out what is really in them, and how they try to trick you with words.

Losing weight healthily is actually not very difficult, once you understand the chemistry of your body.  Tomorrow will will start going through it.

Chemicals We Put On Our Bodies #1: Makeup and Perfume.

Many people are concerned about chemicals in the world around them.

Whether it be fly sprays or cleaning compounds some people worry that they may contain chemicals that could be harmful with long term exposure.

But what about chemicals that we put on our bodies – makeup and perfume/cologne for example?

I’m not exactly sure what’s in makeup, whether it be foundation or blush or eyeliner or whatever, but I suspect that these are mostly harmless inorganic compounds, perhaps with some glycerin or other inert base.

With perfumes and colognes however it’s a different story.  It is well known in the chemical industry that fragrance chemists have amongst the highest rates of cancer.  And the reason should be pretty obvious.  Most carcinogenic compounds are aromatic in nature – indeed, benzene, a highly carcinogenic compound, it is the most basic aromatic molecule there is.

No one quite knows why some molecules smell different to others, but without exception they are organic in nature.  The very act of smelling tells us that there is an interaction with the sensors in your nose.

And the problem is, that no one knows what is actually in these perfumes, what is in Chanel No.5?  It’s a proprietary formula – a secret.  And it will always remain that way.

For me personally, my view is that the chemicals most likely to cause cancer to me are fragrant products that I put on my body – Cologne for example.  And the puzzling thing is that no one seems to ever ask the question – are these chemicals safe?  The reason is, I think, that people think “how can something that smells so nice be harmful?”

There is a perception that nasty chemicals must smell nasty.  This is most definitely not the case.  So we simply don’t know.  As a consequence I rarely use Cologne or aftershave.  One must of course be aware of personal hygiene, so I wear a good quality deodorant that will stay with me all day, but that’s it.  I’m not putting any other chemicals on my body until I know what they are.

Contrast this for example with moisturising lotions or insect repellents or pharmaceutical products where they will readily tell you what the chemicals are.