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What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical with a strong pickle-like odor that is commonly used in many manufacturing processes. It easily becomes a gas at room temperature, which makes it part of a larger group of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When an item gives off formaldehyde, it is released into the air through a process called off-gassing.  

Health Effects

BEWARE Formaldehyde in your homes
BEWARE Formaldehyde in your homes

Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. 

Exposure to formaldehyde may cause health effects in some individuals. The severity of symptoms depends upon the concentration (how much) and duration (how long) of formaldehyde exposure. Additionally, some people are more sensitive to chemicals such as formaldehyde and may experience symptoms earlier than others.

Short-term exposure may result in immediate symptoms including:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Coughing
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness and nausea

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde may cause some types of cancer.

There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans.  Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions. It May cause cancer. May also cause other effects listed under “organic gases.”  EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System profile –

Levels in Homes

Average concentrations in older homes without UFFI are generally well below 0.1 (ppm). In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm.

History of Formaldehyde

Widespread awareness of the dangers of formaldehyde in our homes began in the mid-1970s, when people experienced serious respiratory damage from urea foam formaldehyde insulation (U.F.F.I.)  Although the use of U.F.F.I was banned in 1982, the ban was overturned and formaldehyde continues to be used in building materials and products that affect indoor air quality.

Sources of Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is found in manufactured wood products used as building materials such as OSB, plywood, MDF, and particle board. These manufactured wood products are also found in furniture like desks, bookshelves, beds, kitchen cabinets, and more. Although formaldehyde emissions from wood products reduce over time, there are many other invisible sources in the home. Formaldehyde is also added to paints, coatings, plastic products, pesticides, cosmetics, mattress ticking, leather goods, adhesives, glues, resins, synthetic fabrics, permanent press bedding, clothing, and drapes. Formaldehyde is a combustion byproduct of cigarette smoke and invented, fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves and space heaters. Use reusable rags or microfibers instead of paper towels. Most paper towels emit formaldehyde, which is added to improve the strength and water resistance of paper products.

Combustion Sources

Cigarettes and e-cigarettes

Enforce a no smoking policy in your home – do not allow cigarettes inside. This applies to e-Cigarettes too, which have up to 15 times the formaldehyde of regular cigarettes. Combustion byproducts from furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and fireplaces

Make sure gas or oil-fired furnaces and water heaters, gas stoves, wood stoves, and fireplaces are properly exhausted. We recommend using this Combustion Spillage fact sheet to learn more about how this affects your health and what you can do about combustion sources of formaldehyde.

Vehicle exhaust

Reduce exposure to vehicle exhaust, which can be extremely detrimental to your health, causing problems ranging from respiratory ailments to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.(11) If you have an attached garage, always open the garage door before starting your car, and do not leave the car idling inside. You can also install a garage exhaust fan that runs continuously or is on an automatic timer to remove the car exhaust from the garage so it does not infiltrate the home. Protect the entrance to your home by adding good weather stripping around the door to the garage to help prevent exhaust from entering your home. Note: when it comes to indoor air quality, detached garages are the best option. Consider a detached garage if you are building/buying a new home.

Clothing and Bedding

Clothes treated with formaldehyde

Pay attention to clothing labels and avoid “easy care” fabrics that claim to be permanent press, anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink-proof wool), waterproof, stain resistant (especially for suede and chamois), perspiration-proof, moth-proof, mildew-resistant, color-fast. In order to meet these qualifications, these fabrics are often treated with urea-formaldehyde resins.

In January 2009, new blue uniforms were issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide.  The new uniforms – besides giving officers a snazzy new look – also gave them  skin rashes, bloody noses, lightheartedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the officers.  “We’re hearing from hundreds of T SOs that this is an issue,” said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union.

The American Federation of Government Employees blames formaldehyde ! 

Steps to Reduce Exposure

  • Use “exterior-grade” pressed wood products (lower-emitting because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins).
  • Use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels.
  • Increase ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home.

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