While long known to be a harmful substance, formaldehyde was officially declared by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) to be a known carcinogen on June 10th, 2011. Included in the 12th edition of the Report on Carcinogens, formaldehyde was noted to cause otherwise rare nasal, sinus, and throat cancers as well as myeloid leukemia. Formaldehyde had already been listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in prior editions of the report since the 1980s; its updated status to “known carcinogen” was prompted by recent examinations of occupational and animal studies on the effects of prolonged exposure to the gas.
Formaldehyde, a colorless gas with many industrial applications, can be found in furniture glues, car exhaust, plywood and particle wood, building materials, cleaning products, cosmetic chemicals, and biological preservatives, among other places. It is also released during combustion and is therefore generally present in fireplaces, stoves and ovens, smog, and tobacco smoke. Traces of the chemical have been measured in food and drinking water, and our bodies naturally produce formaldehyde in small quantities.
The average person’s exposure to formaldehyde is usually low enough not to cause health issues; however, certain risk factors—such as poorly-ventilated buildings or pre-existing respiratory problems—can exacerbate the effects of formaldehyde overexposure, which include skin irritation, burning eyes, and breathing difficulties. The report expressed the greatest concern for those employed in jobs where contact with formaldehyde is more frequent and in higher concentrations, thereby posing an increased threat to long-term health.
The report did not come as a surprise to many. The International Agency for Research on Cancer had already deemed formaldehyde a cancer-causing agent, and the American Dental Association noted formaldehyde’s cancerous properties back in 1981. However, the NTP’s declaration of formaldehyde as definitively carcinogenic was met with resistance from the American Chemistry Council and other groups representing the chemical industry who challenged the report’s findings. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences agreed with the NTP’s conclusion that formaldehyde causes cancer but questioned the inclusion of myeloid leukemia as one of the cancers caused.
Avoiding exposure to formaldehyde is the best way to protect yourself from formaldehyde. According to the NTP’s report, no federal regulations exist to control formaldehyde levels in residential buildings, so the burden falls largely on the consumer to take proactive measures. Those with a history of chemical sensitivities, asthma, or respiratory/lung issues should take special care to limit their exposure to formaldehyde, as should residents living in prefabricated homes and trailers since these structures tend to emit higher amounts of formaldehyde than the typical house.
Keeping humidity down and ventilating your home and workplace have been shown to improve excessive contact with formaldehyde. Many products available here at Sylvane, including chemical air purifiers, dehumidifiers, and air testing kits, can help you control formaldehyde levels. The IQAir GC Multigas Air Purifier is especially robust in combating contaminants like formaldehyde in indoor air. Because the gas thrives in warm, humid environments, even running an air conditioner can provide some benefit against overexposure. Indoor air environments contain higher concentrations of formaldehyde than outdoor environments, so general measures to improve the quality of your indoor air will also help maintain low levels of formaldehyde.
Other preventative measures you can take include burning items and materials in a well-ventilated area, purchasing pressed wood certified as formaldehyde-free or low-emitting formaldehyde, making sure your workspace is following Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) standards for dangerous chemicals, choosing not to smoke (especially indoors), and getting plenty of fresh outdoor air.
For more information on the dangers of formaldehyde, read our past blog post Protect Yourself from Formaldehyde Exposure.
In addition, read about formaldehyde safety at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
Learn more about the NTP’s decision to list formaldehyde as carcinogenic at the National Toxicology Program website.