Formaldehyde

What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that may cause cancer and other harmful health effects. It is a colorless and flammable gas with a distinct odor detectable at very low concentrations.1 Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical; our bodies even produce minimal amounts of formaldehyde. However, at high concentrations, formaldehyde vapors are dangerous.

What are the health effects of formaldehyde in indoor air?

Formaldehyde irritates the nose, eyes, and throat and can increase tearing of the eyes. These irritations are often seen at levels ranging from 0.4 to 3 parts per million (ppm) and may affect hypersensitive individuals (those who are particularly vulnerable to formaldehyde) at concentrations as low as 0.037 ppm.1, 2 Other short-term effects include headache, runny nose, nausea and difficulty breathing.3 Exposure may cause wheezing and other respiratory symptoms.4

Symptoms of formaldehyde irritation can vary greatly among individuals. Some people have a natural allergic sensitivity to airborne formaldehyde and others may develop an allergy as a result of skin contact with liquid formaldehyde.3 Researchers are investigating whether individuals with asthma are more vulnerable to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde. As yet, the evidence is inconclusive.1, 4

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has designated formaldehyde as a human carcinogen or cancer-causing agent.2 Evidence shows formaldehyde can cause a rare cancer of the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.” It also is listed as a Toxic Air Contaminant by the State of California.2

What are the sources of formaldehyde indoors?

Many industries use formaldehyde. It is used to produce wood, paper, plywood, glues and adhesives, permanent press fabrics, some paints and coatings, and certain insulation materials. It is also found in many consumer products, including cosmetics, dish soaps, medicines, leather treatments and fabric softeners.4

Formaldehyde is present both indoors and outdoors. However, formaldehyde levels are usually much higher indoors. Because formaldehyde is volatile, which means it evaporates easily, it is released into the air from many products inside the home. High humidity and high temperatures speed up the release of formaldehyde.

Smoking indoors produces high concentrations of formaldehyde. Burning wood products, fuel, paper and other products is also an important source of formaldehyde.

 How can you reduce exposure to formaldehyde indoors?

There are a few simple ways to protect yourself from formaldehyde indoors.

  • Purchase low-formaldehyde products when building or remodeling. Furniture and pressed-wood board made with laminated surfaces release less formaldehyde and other VOCs. If possible, use non-toxic alternatives to formaldehyde-containing products like glue and adhesives.
  • Ventilate indoor spaces. Open windows or use exhaust fans to blow indoor air out and bring fresh air in. Make sure any combustion appliance has a separate exhaust to the outdoors. It is also important to ventilate indoor spaces when using cleaners, cosmetic products like nail polish remover or most paints.
  • Air out new furniture and pressed-wood products. Many consumer products that emit formaldehyde, such as plywood and particle board, release the highest concentrations when they are new. Air them out before installing them or bringing them indoors.
  • Don’t allow smoking indoors. Not smoking and prohibiting smoking indoors can reduce exposure to formaldehyde. Second-hand smoke contains many chemicals in addition to formaldehyde that can harm health.
  • Wash permanent press clothing before wearing. Formaldehyde is used in the production of special fabrics.

Citations:

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Formaldehyde. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. 1999.
  2. California Air Resources Board (CARB). Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency. 2005.
  3. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Revised Health Consultation –Formaldehyde Sampling at FEMA Temporary Housing Units - Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Atlanta, GA:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. 2007.
  4. Institute of Medicine, Division of Health Promotion, Indoor Air and Disease Prevention. Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 2000.