Q: In the past two years or so we have seen big news about poisonous melamine in pet food and in baby formula — both from China. Is this the same melamine we see used as a finish on particleboard in this country? If so, are we putting ourselves in danger of kidney failure by working with this material? Am I completely off-base?
A: I’m a polymer chemist (30 years or so in the lab, sales, product development and marketing) by day and a woodworker on the weekends and by night.
Not to get too technical, but melamine is a chemical with a lot of nitrogen. It was used in the recent pet food scandal because they sell their product based on protein content. The simple QC tests for protein look only for nitrogen, not the proteins themselves. Since protein also has a lot of nitrogen in it, the bad guys could make their product look like it had a higher protein content by adding melamine. The tests, looking for nitrogen, couldn’t discern where the nitrogen came from and so, upon testing, the product looked good. Dishonest, unethical and dangerous!
Melamine resin (plastic laminate) is made when the chemical melamine is combined with formaldehyde. Yes, that formaldehyde. But not to worry, both of these are chemically changed and locked up in very large molecules that are not biologically active: they’re unavailable to react badly in people. The non-chemist fearmongers out there worry about combining two poisons to make a kitchen counter. Still, Formica has been around since 1912, and I know of no one dead or injured by their countertops.
The only danger I know of to a woodworker using melamine resin laminates is the dust hazard — just like sawdust. The small particles are the problem, not their chemical composition.