When creating habitats or toys for our hamsters it is important to ensure we are using safe materials. There are so many options, especially when it comes to wood, it can be hard to know what is and isn’t safe. Historically the hamster fancy has used materials like melamine to create habitats. Research into melamine and its components (ie. MDF particle boards) actually shows several problematic qualities and may not be the safest option when creating your enclosures.
“The toxicity of melamine caught the attention of physicians as a result of a recent spate of renal injury after exposure to melamine-tainted milk in China. Melamine is an organic nitrogenous compound used in the production of plastics, dyes, fertilizers, and fabrics. In the current incident, melamine was added to milk to elevate falsely assay results for protein content. A variety of toxic effects from melamine, including nephrolithiasis, chronic kidney inflammation, and bladder carcinoma, all have been studied in animals.” (https://jasn.asnjournals.org/content/20/2/245.short)
Melamine resin, as a material, is toxic when ingested. It can cause damage to the kidneys. The hamster fancy has acknowledged the risk of ingestion for a long time however it has been regarded as safe for non-chewers. The larger issue though is that melamine is only one part of the material - melamine is the plastic like coating/glue that covers a material like MDF particle board. Melamine also includes formaldehyde.
While formaldehyde is a compound found in many things (including our bodies, fruit, etc.): “Formaldehyde vapor now is known to off-gas from many of these products [products with melamine formaldehyde resin]. Vapor exposure of humans results in symptoms of eye and upper respiratory tract irritation. Inhaled formaldehyde also produces nasal carcinomas in rats and mice (following exposure to 14.1 ppm in mice and 5.6 ppm in rats for 6 hr/day, 5 days/week for 24 mo).” (https://europepmc.org/article/med/3824872)
MDF Particle Board
MDF is a popular building material for many objects, however is it well known for its issues with off gassing. MDF releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including formaldehyde. In the Museum world, MDF is avoided due to these VOCs and how they affect sensitive artifacts. “There is currently no entirely effective method to block emissions from MDF and MDF, even sealed, should not be used in long-term displays. Because of the risk posed by formaldehyde to humans, there has been much research in the wood panel industry on the emissions from composite wood.” (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00393630.2019.1565153?fbclid=IwAR3o-CS9_nPD6QKrUaIWAlu4CfOULfpo2EhCEVqnSrj0rPUJfKOfqHuxegA)
While melamine has been a popular material choice for hamsters, it comes with inherent risks. For a gnawing rodent, the risk of ingestion of melamine is high. The material and its components also off gas. This off gassing can cause irritation to the eyes, respiratory tract and skin. It is best avoided, and owners should select alternatives when creating DIY hacks to eliminate risk.