The 7 Key Questions about Formaldehyde Exposure

What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde exposure is common as it is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) which is found in many building and cleaning products and contributes to indoor air pollution by a slow leakage process called outgassing. It is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent odour. Many VOCs can cause health problems and contribute to Sick Building Syndrome, particularly in people with asthma, rhinitis, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Formaldehyde acts as irritants, rather than allergens. Formaldehyde exposure can produce symptoms at levels as low as 0.1 parts per million (ppm).

What products contain formaldehyde?

  • The glue used in board-based wood (plywood, particleboard, fibreboard), office furniture (especially flat-pack furniture), flooring, and wall panelling
  • Foam backing on carpets
  • Paint preservatives
  • Fabric treatment in ‘easy care’, ‘crease-resistant’ or ‘non-iron’ polyester or polycotton textile products
  • Urea-formaldehyde insulation
  • Cigarette smoke and incompletely vented fuel-burning appliances (gas stoves, kerosene heaters, wood-burning stoves)

Formaldehyde is used as a fungicide and disinfectants in certain workplaces (e.g. mortuaries, laboratories). Formaldehyde exposure is common as it is also used in hundreds of industrial processes including the manufacture of paints, plastics, paper, textiles, carpets, woods and furniture, glues and resins.

How long do products give off formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde can outgas from products for several months and sometimes years, the amount decreasing with time, however, sensitivity to formaldehyde exposure does tend to increase over time too.

What are the health effects of formaldehyde?

  • Sneezing, coughing
  • Eye, nose, throat irritation
  • Long-term exposure causes impaired lung function, skin problems including eczema and dermatitis

The International Agency for Research on Cancer cites formaldehyde as a human carcinogen and studies suggest it is a cause of throat and nasal cancer and leukaemia.

Who is most at risk of formaldehyde exposure?

People with asthma, rhinitis and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are most at risk for formaldehyde exposure. Those with existing skin complaints and the elderly, the very young, and pregnant women are also at risk.

What is the law on formaldehyde levels?

In the UK, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Human Health legislation (COSHH,) says, ‘The current Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) for formaldehyde is two parts per million (2ppm), time-weighted average over eight hours. The short-term limit (averaged over ten minutes) is 2ppm. In fact, the HSE’s own research shows that eye irritation can occur by exposures of 0.01 ppm - which is 200 times less than the WEL.

The WEL for formaldehyde is currently under review and subject to possible change.

A worker's exposure to formaldehyde should not exceed this WEL and every effort should be made to reduce the exposure to as low as is reasonably practical, and in any case below the WEL. In Sweden and Germany, the maximum possible indoor level is 0.1ppm.

In the USA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has set a lower level of exposure to formaldehyde, at 0.75 ppm.

How can I protect myself from formaldehyde exposure?

Consider using solid wood rather than board-based wood in your office or place of work and look for ‘low gas’ or ‘zero gas’ products. You could use metal or glass for shelving. If building work is done with board-based wood, ventilate well for a couple of weeks to get rid of the worst of the formaldehyde. It might be a good idea to paint, or USE varnish to seal surfaces of board-based wood products to prevent the formaldehyde from outgassing. When choosing a carpet, go for one with a hessian or felt, rather than foam, backing.

If you have no choice but to stick with board-based wood products, be sure to ventilate your office to get rid of any formaldehyde build up. An office air cleaning solution such as an effective air purifier with a gas adsorbing filter will remove formaldehyde from the indoor air. For instance, the IQAir GCX high-performance air cleaners can be equipped with four advanced filter cartridges with activated carbon and potassium permanganate impregnated alumina for the effective control of formaldehyde exposure.

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