- Formaldehyde can occur naturally in the environment and is also produced industrially, it is mainly used commercially as a solution in water
- Formaldehyde is commonly used in the manufacture of resin polymers to produce permanent adhesives, foam insulation and paper and textile finishing treatments
- It is used as a disinfectant and fumigant in hospitals, ships, dwellings and animal handling facilities.
- Formaldehyde is also used to fix tissues for histology and pathology eg in hospitals, laboratories and mortuaries.
- Formaldehyde breaks down rapidly in the environment through action with sunlight and bacteria.
- It usually metabolises to formic acid in the human body and does not accumulate. It is eliminated either through the urine or exhaled as carbon dioxide.
- Formaldehyde is also known as CH20, Methanal; Methylene glycol; Oxomethane; Methylene oxide; Methyl aldehydes.
ormaldehyde is a common chemical used in thousands of products as a binder, adhesive and solvent. Formaldehyde can also be formed when other chemicals break down, including natural chemicals eg methane. It is a volatile organic compound (VOC) which means it is a chemical that becomes a gas at room temperature. As a result, products made with formaldehyde will release the gas into the air. This is called off-gassing. The liquid form (40% aqueous solution) of formaldehyde is called formalin and the solid form is paraformaldehyde (white powder). Formalddehyde can be absorbed by inhalation and ingestion and less well through the skin.
Formaldehyde has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as carcinogenic to humans. “It produces nasal tumours following prolonged exposure by inhalation to levels producing chronic irritant effects.” 1
Where is it found?
As a glue, formaldehyde is found in chipboard, particle board, plywood, pressed-wood products (MDF), carpets, and urea formaldehyde foam insulation. It may also be found in some synthetic fabrics, especially permanent press/ non-iron / crease resistant clothing. Other such products include photocopier ink, plastics, dyes, paint, paper products, cosmetics, shampoos, hair conditioners, pharmaceutical products, air fresheners, household antiseptics, carpet cleaners and mouthwash.
Formaldehyde is also used as a disinfectant and fumigant in some hospitals in solutions of approximately 5% in water. It is also a product of combustion. When you burn materials such as natural gas, wood, petrol or tobacco (cigarettes), formaldehyde gas is released. Formaldehyde in small concentrations is a normal part of our environment (for example in green oak wood2). Outdoor air levels are usually between 0.002 to 0.006 parts per million (ppm) in suburban areas 3. Ozone can also cause the formation of formaldehyde through chemical reaction with some building materials such as plaster, plywood and carpet etc.
Office equipments (photocopiers and laser printers) have been found to release formaldehyde possibly through oxidation reaction of ozone with aliphatic hydrocarbons from these equipments.
What are the health effects?
The health effects of formaldehyde exposure vary from one person to another. The most common symptoms are irritation to the mucus membranes (eye, nose and throat irritation eg runny nose/ coughing), headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Human eyes are especially sensitive to formaldehyde. Many people describe the eye irritation as a burning sensation much like when cutting an onion or when you get soap in your eyes. It is common for people with MCS or Candida to be sensitive to formaldehyde as the aldehyde detoxification pathway is usually not working efficiently.
Metabolising Formaldehyde: “Formaldehyde is metabolised at the initial site of contact into formate, by formaldehyde dehydrogenase. Formaldehyde is naturally a metabolic intermediate produced in all cells during the metabolism of serine, glycine, methionine and choline. Neither formaldehyde or its metabolites accumulate in any of the body tissues to any appreciable extent. However, the elimination of formate is slower than its formation from formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is eliminated mainly by urinary excretion as formic acid or exhaled as carbon dioxide.” From HPA1
I tend to see formaldehyde mostly in lymphocyte sensitivity tests – ie not as a toxic overload and I have never seen it as a DNA adduct. My clinical impression is that Formaldehyde does not accumulate. It mainly affects people with MCS from photocopiers (glutaraldehyde) hospitals (pathology departments) airplanes and of course (new) clothes shops and fabrics.– Dr Apelles Econs, Allergy and Environmental Specialist.
The effects of long-term exposure are not well known however long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen,” while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans” based on nose and throat cancers in working populations.
How do I know if I have a formaldehyde problem?
You may want to measure the formaldehyde level in your home if you have any of the symptoms above or have recently purchased a new home, furniture or cabinets, or redecorated. Some products and construction materials may emit formaldehyde at levels above 0.10 ppm especially when they are new. Products that are a few years old have off-gassed much of their formaldehyde and usually do not pose a health threat.
How can I measure the level of formaldehyde?
The easiest way to measure formaldehyde is with a passive formaldehyde monitor. After keeping the monitor in the home for the amount of time recommended by the company, you send it back to a lab for analysis. Test kits can be ordered from various vendors. You can search for “formaldehyde test kit” on the internet or call a company who does VOC testing.
The most common guideline for acceptable formaldehyde levels is 0.10 ppm. However, some people are sensitive to formaldehyde and may experience health effects at levels below 0.10 ppm. If you have levels of formaldehyde that exceed 0.10 ppm it is recommended that you take steps to reduce the levels by removing the source if feasible and increase ventilation to bring in more air from the outdoors.
MCS-Aware has not had contact with the following suppliers of formaldehyde test kits, so any feedback would be appreciated:
Postal air testing service for formaldehyde and other VOCs
Formaldehyde home test kit and ones for other VOCs
Formaldehyde test kit
International postal kit from USA for VOCs
VOC emissions testing. Not sure if this would be specific products or suitable for general home testing.
VOC testing and analysis, again not sure if this would relate to home testing.
Whichever one you choose make sure they are going to check parts per billion as people with MCS react to much lower levels than those accepted by the general public.
What can be done to reduce the formaldehyde level?
- Minimise combustion: Ensure that combustion sources (eg gas, oil or wood/coal fires) are properly maintained and vented outdoors. Avoid cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes.
- Avoid products known to contain formaldehyde. Wash any new fabrics/ clothing before use. Avoid hanging vertical blinds as these are likely to have been stiffened with formaldehyde. Non-iron clothes are also likely to contain the chemical. Use solid wood instead of particle boards. Use solid wood floors instead of laminate. Check insulation does not contain a formaldehyde binder.
- Allow products to off-gas: Before bringing any formaldehyde-containing products into your home, allow them to off-gas outside the home in a warm well-ventilated space (or ask the manufacturer to leave the product unsealed in the warehouse for a while). How long something takes to outgas depends on the product and how sensitive you are – from 6 weeks to a couple of years. If you purchase products made of composite wood, you may be able to purchase a display model where the chemicals, including formaldehyde, have already off-gassed. Kitchen cupboards and worktops can be sealed with a product from ECOS paints: www.ecospaints.com Tel: 00 44 (0) 1524 852371
- Ventilate: By increasing ventilation you can lower the concentration of formaldehyde. Open windows or try an air purifier. Some houseplants can also reduce formaldehyde eg spider plants (houseplants may not be suitable if you have a severe mould allergy).
- Climate: Formaldehyde is water soluble and reacts to temperature changes. This means that as the temperature and humidity go up so does the amount of formaldehyde released from a product. By keeping the temperature and humidity low, you can decrease the amount of formaldehyde off-gassing into the air.
- Sealants: Formaldehyde containing products may be sealed by using airtight sealers shellac, or special sealers (eg from ECOS – see above) which is particularly helpful for cabinets and shelving. This method is less preferable than those listed above because more new chemicals are introduced into the indoor environment. People with MCS should be careful what they use.