Danger: Formaldehyde Exposure in the Home

The most common volatile organic chemical (VOC) pollutant in indoor air is airborne formaldehyde.

When most people think of formaldehyde, the first thing that comes to mind is animal dissection, from biology class.

I fondly recall my 1961 Junior High School biology dissection lab.

I visualize slick black lab table tops, with frogs pinned to boards, and 13 year-olds suppressing nausea while clutching scalpels, scissors, and forceps.

I named my frog "Freddy," (Kermit The anthropomorphic Frog was years in the future).

But Freddy T. Frog was a big disappointment, all his parts were a pale white, making it difficult to distinguish organs.

Freddy was also leather tough, making him hard to cut.

Worse yet, I got a "B-" for incorrectly identifying the pancreas as a gall bladder.

Ah, those halcyon days of youth, can't you just smell the formaldehyde?

Yep, back then nobody even questioned the risks of having kids exposed to every dangerous chemical known.

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Today schools are phasing out dissection, substituting less hazardous computerized exercises using virtual models of animals.

Formaldehyde is used to preserve tissue for histology labs because it is extremely toxic to decomposer microorganisms. Formaldehyde destroys viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.

Formaldehyde penetrates tissues and cells and crosslinks proteins. This "fixation" is what made my Freddy's body so stiff.

Crosslinking is a biomarker for aging. It's what causes wrinkles to form, a component of emphysema, and is one aspect of hardening of the arteries - heart disease.

Crosslinking is present to some extent with any exposure, not just at levels high enough to provoke unpleasant sensations or create cancer concerns.

There is no safe level of human exposure.

Some environmental groups call formaldehyde one of the most dangerous compounds to ecosystems and human health.

So why is this hazardous stuff our top indoor air pollutant?

Ubiquitous Toxin

Formaldehyde is everywhere, its low cost means use in many building materials and thousands of household products produce millions of exposures.

As with any toxin, the potential for abuse exists. Marijuana has long been spiked with additives to spruce up lame batches.

Today, dipping joints in formaldehyde is the toxic addiction fad, with a music group calling themselves the "Formaldehyde Junkies."

Commercially manufactured for over 100 years, formaldehyde is a big business, with American production of 11.3 billion pounds in 1998.

International formaldehyde production was over 46 billion pounds in 2004 and growing fast.

Of course that kind of money means a deeply entrenched lobby.

There is even a public relations group, The Formaldehyde Council, Inc., to sing the product's praises and counter any bad news which might accidentally slip out.

While several government agencies have made attempts at regulation, "voluntary" industry adjustments have reduced levels to the point that the US authorities have mostly backed off.

European regulators have been active and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has taken its own initiatives.

But even CARB has only made recommendations - "...highly desirable that residential levels remain well below 27 ppb."

Meanwhile, there is no real US standard for residential formaldehyde emissions, and no product labeling requirements.

Sources of Formaldehyde

The outdoor air in rural regions has much lower concentrations than urban areas.

Formaldehydes have a short half-life in air, about 8 to 12 hours, where sunlight accelerates decomposition by photolitic oxidation. So proximity to sources is the main determinant of outdoor air levels.

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A major outdoor source of formaldehyde exposure is smog, especially in heavy traffic corridors.

But continuous off-gassing indoors, where photolitic oxidation is absent, can result in long term elevated levels.

The good news is, although most water is not safe to drink due to added Fluoride, formaldehyde has a short half life in water, making water a negligible contributing source.

Formaldehyde emissions are highest when products are new, and decline over time.

Heat and humidity increase release rates of formaldehyde from household products.

Indoor exposures come from a bewildering variety of sources; building materials, indoor burning, home furnishings, household products, medicines and vaccinations, personal products and cosmetics, clothing, and food.

Building Materials

Wood products consume around one third of formaldehyde output, with particle board/fiberboard (sawdust and chips glued together with resins) and plywood the main users.

acid-cured or catalyzed wood floor finish, - huge emissions while wet,

sheet vinyl flooring,

fiberglass insulation,

foam insulation,

latex paint,



Formaldehyde is heavy in many mobile homes and recreational vehicles, as demonstrated by the Hurricane Katrina FEMA relief trailer formaldehyde debacle.

Indoor Burning Dangers

Much airborne formaldehyde enters the environment as a result of burning.

Air-purifier-power.com recommends immediate cessation of all indoor burning; frying, incense, candles, fireplaces, and unvented gas stoves and water heaters should be reconsidered.

Fumes from near-house burning - leaves, idling cars, and barbecue charcoal lighter fluid - often find their way indoors.

Kerosene space heaters are hazardous for both formaldehyde and carbon monoxide emissions.

Home Furnishings

carpet pads/backings,
leather (leather tanning agents),
formica and bakelite in counter tops, furniture, and automobile interiors.

Household Products

household antiseptics, germicides, and fungicides,
coated paper products, where formaldehyde improves water and grease resistance, includes grocery bags, paper plates, paper towels,
air fresheners,
rug and upholstery cleaners,
scatter rugs and bath mats, resin-coated rugs
toilet bowl cleaners,
water softening chemicals,
felt tip markers,
dish-washing liquids,
fabric softeners,
shoe-care agents,
carpet cleaners
many soft plastics,
rubberized items,
synthetic lubricants,
car wash detergent.


Personal Products

bubble baths,
hair conditioners,
fingernail hardener,
fingernail polish remover,
anhidrotics (antiperspirants),
and some pet shampoos (up to .1% formaldehyde).

Fabric and Clothing

permanent press fabrics,

and tanned leather goods.

In Medicine

Formaldehyde is widely used as a fumigant in hospitals and laboratories.

Formaldehyde is a component of many medicines, including;

many vaccinations,
wart remedies,
medicated creams,
orthopedic casts,
dental root canal preparation disinfectants and sealants,
cardiac drugs,
some athlete's foot remedies,
cough drops,
skin disinfectants,
spermicidal creams,
disinfectant for vasectomies,
and enteric slow-release pill coatings.

In Food and Agriculture

Many slow-release fertilizers are based on urea-formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is heavily and widely employed in agriculture for seed treatment, stored crop fumigation, and soil disinfection.

It is added to animal feed as a preservative, and to improve handling characteristics of animal fat and oilseed cattle food mixtures.

Occupational Exposure to Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde-exposed workers include;

clothing industry personnel,
furniture workers,
teachers and students using preserved specimens in labs,
and Israeli F16 warplane Pilots.

Reduce Formaldehyde Exposure

The problem of avoiding formaldehyde is exacerbated by the many decay reaction partial products and product names it hides under.

Here is a partial list of tell-tales;

methylene oxide,
and morbicid acid.

If you have respiratory symptoms which abate when you are away from home, the following ideas may be useful in reducing formaldehyde risks.

1.) Remove source materials from your breathing space. Start in the bedroom, moving everything toxic to another part of the house.

No exposed particleboard should be in the sleeping space, look under and behind furniture veiner for evidence of pressed wood.

I recently inherited a leather recliner chair, it made my living room stink of formaldehyde (no wonder he died). It went on the back porch.

2.) Increase ventilation by opening doors and windows and installing exhaust fans.

This is especially important in mobile homes and prefabricated housing.

3.) For built in cabinets, seal the surfaces and edges of formaldehyde-emitting products with a non-toxic vapor barrier.

4.) Install a formaldehyde-capable air purifier, especially in the bedroom.

Recommended Air Purifiers for Removing Formaldehyde


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