Part of our Chemicals of Concern series.
Why the chemical is considered of concern:
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—the United Nations authoritative research body on cancer—has classified as a “known carcinogen”, (i.e., a substance that causes cancer.) Epidemiological studies have shown an increased risk of cancer among people regularly exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace. In addition, studies in rats have found that exposure to formaldehyde causes nasal cancer. IARC concluded in 2009 that formaldehyde causes leukemia in people.
The mildest symptom of over-exposure, especially for those with sensitive skin, is skin irritation. If breathed-in in small amounts, formaldehyde can cause burning and watering eyes. As levels increase, it can cause burning of the nose and throat, coughing, and difficulty in breathing.
Where it is most commonly found:
Because formaldehyde can be used for many purposes and is inexpensive, it’s a popular chemical that’s found in many everyday household products and building materials, and also has several industrial uses. Most of the settings in which formaldehyde is used (PDF) are outside our individual control or occur without our ability to know.
Plywood, particle board, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and other pressed/composite wood products that are commonly used to make furniture, cabinets, wall paneling, shelves, and counter tops are among the most common formaldehyde containing products to which consumers are exposed. Fortunately, President Obama signed into law last year a measure that sets stringent national air emission standards for formaldehyde in domestic and imported composite wood products. EPA is required to implement final regulations under this law by January 1, 2013. Although this law will help reduce formaldehyde emissions, it does not eliminate them and allows exemptions for many different types of building products.
There are still a number of other common household products that contain formaldehyde and fall outside of the upcoming policy. For example, carpeting, padding, and the adhesives used to install them also contain formaldehyde. Carpet is especially problematic as it is a sink for formaldehyde exposure. This is bad news for babies crawling on the floor! Recent news also revealed that formaldehyde is the secret to non-wrinkle clothing and easy care garments. And some household cleaners also contain this carcinogen.
Better regulation (i.e., TSCA reform) is the only systematic way to reduce the number of products containing formaldehyde and the chemical’s industrial uses on a large scale. We also need policies and regulations that require greater disclosure – both to EPA and to the public – as to how and where chemicals are used. Doing so would give EPA the complete picture it needs to understand where, how much, and how often consumers are exposed to chemicals like formaldehyde. Without such information, EPA cannot effectively impose restrictions when necessary to protect public health and the environment from chemical risks.
Formaldehyde is also a common ingredient in health and beauty products. Regulation of the chemical in these kinds of goods falls under FDA jurisdiction. Another piece of yet to be passed legislation – The Safer Cosmetics Act – works to address this use of formaldehyde.
Alternatives, substitute products/goods and other things you can do:
The most inexpensive and available furniture on the market today tends to be made of lower-grade wood products containing formaldehyde, although the situation should improve over time due to the passage of legislation in 2010 controlling these uses. The best option is to seek out solid wood options or “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products, which have lower emissions. And choose bare floors and area rugs over wall-to-wall carpeting.
If formaldehyde is prevalent in an indoor space because of building or other materials that can’t be easily removed, increasing air flow in the affected area, for example, by opening windows and doors, can help reduce formaldehyde concentrations in the air.