Offices and homes are filled with products made up of a toxic chemical that can cause symptoms mimicking allergies, colds, and flu. This chemical is formaldehyde, and it is found in everything from upholstered furniture to rugs, cabinets, paint, and particle board. Even wallpaper and draperies contain formaldehyde. So does cigarette smoke. Given the right conditions, it can off-gas into the air, causing havoc with the respiratory system and resulting in illness and lost work days.
Often, the cause of mystery illnesses within the workplace can be traced to the poor air quality within the office environment itself. Toxic gasses lurk in the air around our desks and computers, one of which is formaldehyde, a potent carcinogen and noxious agent found in countless office items.
According to the Energy Citations Database located in East Syracuse, NY: “An estimated 1.4 million people are exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace, and virtually the entire poplation [sic] comes into contact with the chemical because of its ubiquitous presence in polluted air and in consumer products.” (www. osti.gov)
Different people can react differently to formaldehyde. Some may go without any effects at all. Others may suffer headaches, persistent flu-like symptoms, allergic reactions, asthma, or worse. Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, itchy skin, sore nasal passages, an irritated throat, and watery eyes can all be symptoms of formaldehyde exposure. Since these are also symptoms of colds, flu, and allergy, the real real cause of the problem can be overlooked.
Certain professionals are more likely to be exposed to formaldehyde than others. Office workers, for instance, are less likely to face these problems – although they are not completely safe because of the off-gassing of furniture and computers. Workers most likely to be exposed are doctors, nurses, veterinarians, teachers, students, painters, mill workers, laboratory technicians, firefighters, and construction workers, among many others..
Once in the air, formaldehyde splits into its components: formic acid and carbon monoxide. It’s a gas, and you can’t see it. But, you may get a whiff of it. Its pungent odor can come through. The degree to which the odor seeps into the air, however. depends on how much of the chemical is being gassed off from the surrounding environment.
Steps can be taken to reduce the level of formaldehyde in the office environment. First, since the chemical concentration of formaldehyde in outdoor air is generally less than that found in indoor air, opening a window and using a fan for circulation helps. Keeping the office at a moderate temperature also helps to lower the rate of chemical release from the surroundings. Finally, maintaining the office environment at optimal humidity levels by using air conditioners and dehumidifiers is highly recommended.
Additional information on the topic of formaldehyde in the workplace can be obtained through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), located at 200 Constitution Avenue, Washington, DC 20210. Their phone number is 1-800-321-OSHA (1-800-321-6742), and their web site URL is http://www.osha.gov. Your career should not be making you sick!