Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials and many household products.
Commonly, formaldehyde is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. It is also used to make other chemicals.
Formaldehyde becomes formalin when dissolved in water. It is commonly used as an industrial disinfectant and as a preservative in funeral homes and medical labs. It can also be used as a preservative in some foods and in products, such as antiseptics, medicines, and cosmetics.
It naturally occurs in the environment. Humans and most other living organisms make small amounts as part of normal metabolic processes.
Inhaling is the main way of getting exposed to formaldehyde. The liquid form can be absorbed through the skin. People can also be exposed to small amounts by eating foods or drinking liquids containing formaldehyde.
Exposure to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings has been linked to some types of cancer in humans, but the effect of exposure to small amounts is less clear.
National Cancer Institute researchers have concluded that, based on data from studies in people and from lab research, exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans.
In the workplace, the highest concentration that a worker can be exposed to is 2 ppm, and that can only occur over 15 minutes. Employers must monitor formaldehyde levels and provide respirators and protective clothing as needed to limit exposure. This includes workers in any workplace where formaldehyde exposure is likely, including hair salons that use commercial hair smoothing products that release formaldehyde.
So what can you do to reduce your potential exposure to formaldehyde? Read carefully the labels of personal care products – formaldehyde hides within chemicals like Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. If your office is thinking of buying new furniture, avoid pressed wood. Don’t smoke, and avoid places where people are. Formaldehyde will get into anybody’s lungs, skin, blood, or body. It does not discriminate – but you can.