Vancouver newlyweds Han and Laura Lee say they suffered a series of ill health effects owing to high levels of formaldehyde in their bedroom, which they believe were coming from their new bedroom furniture.
The Lees started noticing a pungent smell after they had a new bed frame, headboard and two night stands delivered two months ago.
They suffered itchy eyes, a sore throat and headaches. Then last week, Laura had a miscarriage, which the couple suspects was linked to the chemical odour.
The Lees had the air in the bedroom tested and found the level of formaldehyde was more than five times what Health Canada says is safe.
Han said the new furniture, which cost $12,000, was supposed to be a traditional Asian "good beginning" to a new marriage, but it has brought them nothing but heartbreak.
"I started to get really scared. Why is this happening all of a sudden, why? And the only thing I could find for an answer was the furniture," said Han.
Han is convinced the formaldehyde in his bedroom is coming from the glues or finish in the new furniture, which is manufactured in Vietnam for the U.S. company Theodore Alexander.
Paramount Furniture, the Richmond store which sold the bedroom set, says it sells a high-quality product and is checking with the manufacturer to see if the furniture is the source of the hazardous gas.
But after being contacted by CBC News, the company agreed to take all the furniture back and has now issued the Lees a full refund.
Doug Jermyn, vice-president of Theodore Alexander, says it is compliant with all air emission standards but promises a thorough analysis of all the furniture.
Health Canada formaldehyde limits
The Lees maintain the odour comes from the furniture. They say after it was first delivered to them, they noticed a chemical smell right away. At that time they had no other furniture, not even a mattress in the room.
When they first tried to get a refund from Paramount, the company only offered a store credit, since the bedroom set was a custom order.
Paramount took the set back to treat it to remove any chemical smells, then returned it to the Lees, at their request.
But the Lees said the fumes persisted, and they hired an environmental engineer, who found formaldehyde levels of 229 parts per billion.
Formaldehyde is a colourless gas emitted mainly from household products and building materials. Low levels are very common in indoor air, on average between 16 and 32.5 parts per billion.
According to Health Canada, when formaldehyde is found at high levels in air, above its guideline limit of 40 parts per billion, it can be damaging to people's health.
The Lees fear the high levels of formaldehyde exposure to which the couple were subjected was the cause of Laura's miscarriage.
Paramount Furniture owner Oren Samuel told CBC News that when his staff returned the furniture to the Lees, they noticed that the Lee's mattress, which they had purchased elsewhere, had a strong chemical odour.
In California, where formaldehyde limits are even tougher, the Department of Public Health publishes a fact sheet stating, "Formaldehyde has been shown to decrease fertility and increase the risk of spontaneous abortion [miscarriage] in humans."
The Lees say they want to share their story so people are aware of the dangers of formaldehyde exposure.
"I cannot say this for sure, because the doctor doesn't even know," said Laura. "But from the date, the time, the report shows, there is a high chance that they are related."
Dr. Karen Bartlett, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, told CBC News that the studies associating miscarriage with formaldehyde exposure relate to occupational exposure, which are at higher levels than the level detected in the Lees' bedroom.
Dr. Bartlett told CBC News that high-end furniture should not be off-gassing formaldehyde.
She said that in North America there is no requirement that manufacturers label furniture with its formaldehyde content, but in Europe information about the emission rates of formaldehyde in wood products is readily available.
“In Europe for example, if you're going to the equivalent to your Home Depot, you would be able to choose your materials based on the emission factor. We can't do that in North America,” Bartlett said.
Dr. Bartlett said Canadian consumers should be given that information.
“I would absolutely recommend that we be given the option of having that information so that we could choose low-emitting materials.”