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Formaldehyde in Indoor Air

July 14, 2017

Formaldehyde in Indoor Air

Formaldehyde is a colorless and flammable gas with a very distinct odor. It is a naturally occurring chemical, and minimal amounts are produced by the human body. However, formaldehyde is a dangerous volatile organic compound (VOC), especially in high concentrations. It can cause numerous adverse health conditions and causes certain types of cancer.

The Health Effects of Formaldehyde in Indoor Air

The most common symptoms of formaldehyde exposure include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat and an increase in tear production. These irritations occur at relatively low levels ranging from 0.4 up to 3 parts per million. Individuals with a hypersensitivity to formaldehyde can experience these symptoms at concentrations as low as 0.037 parts per million. Other short-term effects of formaldehyde exposure include runny nose, nausea, and breathing difficulties.

The symptoms of formaldehyde exposure vary. Some individuals have a natural sensitivity to airborne formaldehyde. Others may develop an allergy after skin exposure.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer lists formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. It is known to cause a rare form of cancer that affects the upper part of the throat and nasal cavity.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen,” while California lists it as a “toxic air contaminant.”

Sources of Indoor Formaldehyde

While formaldehyde is present both indoors and out, levels are usually more concentrated indoors. Since formaldehyde is a volatile compound, it evaporates easily and is released by many chemical products inside the home. Some of these products include cosmetics, detergents, cleaning products, and fabric softener. Other common sources of indoor formaldehyde are paper, plywood, glue, paint, and certain types of insulation.

Smoking tobacco products also releases formaldehyde into the air. Burning wood, paper, and fuel are also sources of airborne formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde concentrations may be higher during the summer months since heat and humidity speed up the release of the substance into the air.

How to Reduce Exposure to Indoor Formaldehyde

Here are a few easy ways to reduce your exposure to indoor formaldehyde.

  • Bring in Fresh Air. Opening your windows and using exhaust fans helps to bring fresh air into your home. It is especially important to make sure areas are well ventilated when using cleaners or cosmetic products such as nail polish remover.
  • Purchase Low Formaldehyde Building Products. Whenever possible, use non-toxic alternatives to adhesives that contain formaldehyde. Also, be cautious when purchasing products made from pressed wood, since these tend to have elevated levels of formaldehyde.
  • Air Out Pressed Wood Products. Plywood, particle board, and other pressed wood products release the highest concentrations of formaldehyde when they are new. Allow them to “breathe” before installing them or otherwise bringing them indoors.
  • Stop Indoor Smoking. Prohibiting indoor smoking reduces formaldehyde exposure. As an added benefit, it also reduces exposure to the many other harmful chemicals contained in secondhand smoke.
  • Wash Permanent Press Clothing. Formaldehyde is used in the production of many permanent-press fabrics. Make sure to wash them before wearing to minimize exposure.
  • Invest in an Air Purifier. A high-quality air purifier such as the Austin Air HealthMate Plus helps to reduce airborne VOCs such as formaldehyde as well as many other dangerous chemicals. The activated carbon portion of this model’s filter is impregnated with potassium iodide for better absorption of VOCs.


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