If you live in the modern world, formaldehyde is all around you. It's in your clothes, furniture and draperies. Your walls and floors probably release formaldehyde gas, as does your car, your furnace and any cigars or cigarettes.
So what? After years of scientific study and debate, researchers now agree that formaldehyde causes cancer and a host of other conditions. Read on to get the facts on formaldehyde safety and risks.
Formaldehyde and Methanal: What Is It?
The chemical compound known as formaldehyde -- sometimes called methanal -- is composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen (CH2O). At room temperature, it's a colorless, flammable gas with a sharp, acrid odor. Formaldehyde is also found in liquid form when combined with water and a stabilizer that prevents the oxidation of formaldehyde.
Though formaldehyde gas occurs in nature, it's fairly volatile and breaks down quickly in sunlight or through bacterial metabolism, so natural sources aren't much of a concern. A much bigger issue is the long-term presence of formaldehyde in manufactured goods.
The list of products that contain formaldehyde is long, and includes common items like fabrics (including draperies, permanent-press clothing, carpets and other woven items), insulation, paints, glues and other adhesives.
The most significant long-term exposures occur in areas where plywood, particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and other manufactured wood and wood-like products are used. Cabinets, counter tops and furniture are obvious sources of formaldehyde; it's also found where buildings are constructed of plywood or oriented strand board (OSB).
Other common sources are gas- or wood-burning stoves, kerosene heaters, tailpipe emissions, tobacco smoke and other sources of combustion.
Industrial sources of formaldehyde are a particular concern among workers. Laboratory technicians, health care workers and people who work in funeral homes and mortuaries -- where formaldehyde is used in embalming -- are at a higher risk of formaldehyde exposure.
Formaldehyde Safety and Risks
Formaldehyde is known to be highly toxic and corrosive, and even short-term exposure has health risks. Consuming liquid formaldehyde causes severe intestinal irritation and death. Even at low levels, formaldehyde gas can cause eye, throat and skin irritation, nausea, wheezing and asthma attacks.
Formaldehyde is now classified as a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and by the National Toxicology Program, a program of the Department of Health and Human Services. Around the world, there are an increasing number of restrictions on the use of formaldehyde. The EPA, for example, places a limit of 16 ppb (parts per billion) of formaldehyde in the air in all new EPA buildings.
Because formaldehyde is so common in building products, it's a significant contributor to indoor air pollution and sick building syndrome. The two biggest areas of concern are 1) at industrial and manufacturing sites where formaldehyde is used, and 2) in recently constructed buildings or interiors with lots of new paint, carpets, adhesives and manufactured furniture and cabinetry.
The single biggest source of formaldehyde gas in homes is the medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, that's often used in cabinetry, counter tops and furniture.
How to Limit Formaldehyde Exposure
To reduce your exposure to formaldehyde, the EPA recommends the following three steps:
Use "exterior-grade" pressed wood products; because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins, they emit less formaldehyde.
Use air-conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels (high temperatures and high humidity will increase the amount of formaldehyde that's emitted).
Increase ventilation, particularly in newly constructed interiors, or after bringing new sources of formaldehyde indoors.