This pamphlet provides answers to basic
questions about formaldehyde. It will explain what formaldehyde is, where it
can be found, how it can affect your health, and what you can do to prevent or
reduce exposure to it.
A family recently installed a new counter
top and cabinets in their kitchen. After the installation was completed, an
odor seemed to linger. That evening, while cleaning up after dinner, the
mothers eyes began to water and the youngest son started coughing. When
they left the kitchen, they noticed that the symptoms went away.
WHAT IS FORMALDEHYDE AND WHERE IS IT
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong,
suffocating odor. It often is mixed with alcohol to make a liquid called
formalin. The largest source of formaldehyde is the chemical manufacturing
industry. Formaldehyde is found in cigarette smoke and also can be formed in
the environment during the burning of fuels or household waste. Very small
amounts of formaldehyde are found naturally in the human body.
Formaldehyde can be used for many purposes and
is a popular chemical because of its low cost. It can be found in items such as
plywood, particle board, and other pressed wood products that are commonly used
to make furniture, cabinets, wall paneling, shelves, and counter tops.
Formaldehyde also can be used to kill germs or as a preservative, and is found
in some commercial products. It also is found in items such as dyes, textiles,
plastics, paper products, fertilizer, and cosmetics.
Formaldehyde was a component in urea
formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). This type of insulation was installed in
many homes during the 1970s and early 1980s. Due to potential health concerns
associated with UFFI, the demand for this product became virtually nonexistent
and it has rarely been used since 1983. Although older homes may still contain
UFFI, any formaldehyde releases would have occurred in the first five years
following installation and would no longer be a cause for concern.
HOW CAN I BE EXPOSED TO
The most common way to be exposed to
formaldehyde is by breathing air containing formaldehyde. This usually occurs
in indoor environments where the gas has been released from
formaldehyde-containing products. Exposure to liquid formalin may be through
the skin or by ingestion.
HOW CAN FORMALDEHYDE AFFECT MY
Breathing air containing low levels of
formaldehyde can cause burning and watering eyes. As levels increase, it can
cause burning of the nose and throat, coughing, and difficulty in breathing.
Some people may be more sensitive to formaldehyde and have effects at levels
lower than expected.
Strong mixtures of formaldehyde gas or liquid
can cause irritation or a rash if they contact the skin. When swallowed,
formaldehyde can cause severe pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Formaldehyde that
enters the blood stream can produce effects similar to drinking too much
Animal studies have shown increased nasal
cancers in rats and mice who inhaled high levels of formaldehyde for a long
time. Because of this, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has
classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen (cancer causing
agent). This means there is enough evidence that formaldehyde causes cancer in
animals, but not enough evidence that it causes cancer in humans. Human studies
are inconclusive because it is not known whether observed increases in cancer
are due to formaldehyde exposure or to other factors, such as smoking.
HOW IS FORMALDEHYDE ASSOCIATED MANUFACTURED
Products that contain formaldehyde compounds
can release formaldehyde gas into the air. These types of releases are known as
"off gassing" and they occur most often in products such as plywood,
particle board, and other pressed wood products. The amount released is
greatest when the product is new, and decreases over time. Formaldehyde is
released more readily at warm temperatures and high humidity.
In manufactured homes that contain large
amounts of pressed wood products, there are concerns about the initial indoor
level of formaldehyde. In 1984, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) set standards for construction of manufactured homes. These
standards require that manufacturers only use pressed wood products that
release formaldehyde at levels below an accepted guideline. The standards also
require that a health notice concerning formaldehyde emissions be included on
all new manufactured homes.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE FORMALDEHYDE IN MY
Because of its strong odor, formaldehyde can be
smelled at very low levels. The typical person can smell formaldehyde at levels
less than those that might cause health effects. People who are hypersensitive
or who have respiratory problems may experience effects at levels lower than
what can be smelled. There are ways of testing the air to learn how much
formaldehyde is present. If you think that your home may have high levels of
formaldehyde, contact your local health department for more information.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY EXPOSURE TO
A simple and effective way to reduce
formaldehyde levels in the home is to increase air flow in the affected area by
opening windows and doors. This lowers the level of formaldehyde by increasing
the amount of outdoor air. Usually, the levels decrease and odors are gone
within a few days.
Another way to reduce exposure is to apply a
barrier between formaldehyde containing surfaces and the indoor air. Products
such as latex-based paints or varnish can block formaldehyde off
gasses. The use of vinyl coverings such as wallpaper and floor covering
on particle board panels also has been effective. If all other efforts fail to
reduce formaldehyde to manageable levels, removing formaldehyde containing
products from the home environment may be necessary.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466
This pamphlet was supported in part by funds
from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and