Formaldehyde (aka methanal, methylene oxide, oxymethylene, methylaldehyde, oxomethane) is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature. It has a sharp, distinct odor which may cause a burning sensation to the eyes, nose, and lungs. Formaldehyde can react with numerous other chemicals, and at very high temperatures, it will break down into a combination of wood alcohol and carbon monoxide. While it is harmless when it is naturally produced in very small amounts in our bodies, it can also be found in the air that we breathe at home and at work (ie smog, car exhaust, tobacco, gas cookers, open fireplaces, fertilizers, latex, leather, paper, plywood, and in manufactured wood products), in the food we eat (ie preservatives), and in some products that we put on our skin (ie antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, dish-washing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe-care agents, carpet cleaners, glues and adhesives, lacquers, paper, plastics, and some types of wood products). When formaldehyde is combined with methanol and buffers, it makes embalming fluid and it can also be used to preserve tissue specimens.
Most of the formaldehyde that you’re exposed to in the environment is in the air. This usually breaks down throughout the day to form formic acid and carbon monoxide. This doesn’t seem to build up in plants, animals or water. However, you are exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the air. This is especially true if you live in heavily populated suburban areas. Surprisingly though, there’s usually more formaldehyde present indoors than outdoors. This is because formaldehyde is released into the air from many home products that you breathe in. These products include latex paint, fingernail hardener, and fingernail polish, antiseptics, medicines, dish-washing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe-care agents, carpet cleaners, glues, adhesives, and lacquers. Formaldehyde is also found in plywood and particle board, as well as furniture and cabinets made from them, fiberglass products, new carpets, decorative laminates, and some permanent press fabrics, and some paper products (ie grocery bags and paper towels). Since these products contain formaldehyde, you may also be exposed through your skin by touching or coming in direct contact with them. You may also be exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the food you eat. Other home products that contain and give off formaldehyde include: household cleaners, carpet cleaners, disinfectants, cosmetics, medicines, fabric softeners, glues, lacquers, and antiseptics. You may also breathe formaldehyde if you use unvented gas or kerosene heaters indoors or if you or someone else smokes tobacco indoors. It is also interesting to note that the amount of formaldehyde in mobile homes and apartments is usually higher than it is in conventional homes because of their lower air turnover.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 1,329,332 individuals in the United States have had the potential for occupational exposure to formaldehyde. This is especially true if you are a doctor, nurse, dentist, veterinarian, pathologist, embalmer, a worker in the clothing industry or in a furniture factory, a worker in a chemical plant, or if you are a teacher or a student who handles preserved specimens in a laboratory.
There are numerous ways in which formaldehyde can enter your body, These include breathing it in, drinking or eating it, or having it come into contact with your skin. Formaldehyde is quickly absorbed from the nose and the upper part of your lungs. It is also very quickly absorbed whenever it is eaten or drank. Once absorbed, almost every tissue in your body can very quickly break down formaldehyde into a non-toxic chemical called formate, which is excreted in the urine. Formaldehyde can also be converted to carbon dioxide and breathed out of the body. Sometimes formaldehyde is even broken down so that the body can use it to make larger molecules that are needed in your tissues. However, formaldehyde is never stored in fat.
Children are most often exposed to formaldehyde through breathing it or by wearing some types of new clothes or cosmetics. Studies have shown that breathing formaldehyde in will result in nose and eye irritation (ie burning feeling, itchy, tearing, and sore throat) in children. It is possible that the irritation occurs at lower concentrations in children than in adults. However, the good news (if there’s any to be found), is that formaldehyde will NOT cause birth defects in humans nor is it found in breast milk.
When you come into contact with formaldehyde you will usually have skin irritation. Of course, some people are more sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde than other people are (ie people with asthma are more sensitive). The most common symptoms include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, along with increased tearing. Other symptoms that occur with large amounts of formaldehyde intake include severe pain, vomiting, coma, and possible death. Studies have shown that exposure to large amounts of formaldehyde also causes nose and throat cancer.
All of this provides a hardcore case for desiring to lower our exposure to formaldehyde. Some ways in which to do this is by opening windows or using a fan to bring fresh air into your home. You should also try to remove as many formaldehyde sources as you can from your home. This includes not smoking indoors (or not smoking at all) and not using unvented portable kerosene heaters. Of course, formaldehyde is also found in small amounts in many consumer products. To reduce your exposure to formaldehyde when using these products you should try to use them near a source of fresh air. If this is not possible, then you should at least make sure that you have plenty of ventilation when you are using them. If you choose to purchase a product that is made out of plywood or particle board, expose it to plenty of fresh air or make sure that it is covered with plastic laminate or coated on all sides. When purchasing permanent press fabrics you should wash these new clothes before you wear them.
Unfortunately, there are currently no reliable tests to determine how much formaldehyde you have been exposed to or whether you will experience any harmful health effects. Until more research is done and new methods are discovered, your best course of action is to follow the above forestated tips.