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Last updated on October 2nd, 2017
Formaldehyde is a colorless pungent toxic gas in solution made by oxidizing methanol, a toxic, colorless, volatile flammable liquid alcohol.
What is formaldehyde’s health impact on humans?
People exposed to formaldehyde may experience short-term and long-term health effects. Different people have different levels of sensitivity to it.
Short-Term Health Effects:
- watery eyes
- burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat
- skin irritation (source).
Long-Term Health Effect:
The first time it was associated with cancer was in 1980. Only recently, in 2011, it was classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.
How are we exposed to formaldehyde?
It is a gas so it off-gasses from products (i.e. is emitted into the air) and we inhale it.
Where is formaldehyde used?
- pressed wood products (hardwood plywood, wall paneling, particleboard, fiberboard)
- furniture made with these pressed wood products
- urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI)
- tobacco smoke
- vehicle exhaust from attached garages
- smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves
- durable press drapes
- finishes on wrinkle-free clothes
- paints, varnishes, and floor finishes
- nail polish
- formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in personal care products, including baby shampoos
What is the safe level of formaldehyde exposure?
In 1987, OSHA established a Federal standard that reduced the amount of formaldehyde to which workers can be exposed over an 8-hour workday from 3 ppm (parts per million) to 1 ppm. In May 1992, the standard was amended, and the exposure limit was further reduced to 0.75 ppm.
The Environmental Protection Agency describes an elevated level of it as 0.1 ppm.
According to Health Canada, a formaldehyde level below 0.04 ppm in your home should not cause any adverse health effects.
In 1992, California determined that it is a potent toxin. The California Air Resource Board (CARB), a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency, regulates its emissions in composite wood.
Recently, the California Environmental Protection Agency came up with a stricter standard, CARB II, which set forward the following limits on its emissions. For hardwood plywood veneer core and hardwood plywood composite core it is 0.05 ppm; for particleboard, it is 0.09 ppm, for medium density fiberboard (MDF) it is 0.11 ppm and for thin MDF, it is 0.13 ppm (source).
How can you best protect yourself from formaldehyde?
- Frequent ventilation significantly decreases indoor pollution even in highly polluted cities. Open your windows.
- Keep the temperature and humidity levels down in your house.
- Spend as much time outside as you can.
- Do not be a pack rat: buy less and get rid of old stuff.
- Buy CARB II compliant furniture.
- Keep your fireplace in good condition.
- Use personal care products and cosmetics that are free of formaldehyde (see my “Products I Like” list for products free of formaldehyde)
- Use “exterior-grade” pressed wood products (these are lower-emitting because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins).
- Allow products that contain it to air out before bringing them into your home.
10. And last but not least, become a regular reader of my blog to learn more about ways and products to use to reduce your exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. And tell your friends!
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