What is formaldehyde?

At room temperature, formaldehyde is a colorless gas that sometimes has a noticeable odor.

Although it has some similar traits, formaldehyde is generally not classified as a volatile organic compound (VOC). It is a chemical substance that is found in many materials and products in the home and workplace. Other names for formaldehyde are methylene oxide, oxomethane, and methylaldehyde.

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Signs and symptoms of exposure

Exposure to formaldehyde in the air can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Since there can be other causes for at least some of these symptoms and signs, you may first want to speak with your doctor before taking further steps.

Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen.

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Is there a medical test for formaldehyde exposure?

No. At the present time, there are no reliable tests to determine exposure or whether a health problem is directly related to formaldehyde.

What are possible sources?

The human body produces tiny and harmless amounts of formaldehyde on a daily basis. Most of the formaldehyde in indoor air comes from the following sources:

Sometimes, fairly porous products (like sheetrock or carpets) that do not normally contain formaldehyde may absorb it from other sources and release it later. This is more likely to occur if there is a rise in temperature and moisture in the air over a period of time.

Since the indoor and outdoor air that we breathe normally contains some formaldehyde, we are all exposed to some extent. The outdoor air in urban areas usually contains more formaldehyde than less populated areas. In general, the indoor air in our homes and workplaces contain higher amounts of formaldehyde than the outdoor air. This is especially so if the structure is less than one year old or a mobile home.

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What factors contribute to the amount of formaldehyde in my home?

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Standards and regulations

In the 1980s, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development established a national standard for newly prefabricated and new mobile homes. Makers of these homes are allowed to use certain building materials and products as long as they do not emit more than a certain level of formaldehyde gas.

The State of Vermont has standards for formaldehyde in the workplace. The Vermont Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) enforces these standards, which relate mainly to industrial or commercial work settings. VOSHA has seldom, if ever, found formaldehyde levels above the VOSHA standard in school or office settings. VOSHA does not conduct inspections or test in private homes or apartments.

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Measuring formaldehyde in the indoor air

Identifying the source

If you become ill - and the illness persists following the purchase of furniture or remodeling with pressed wood products - you might not need to measure formaldehyde, as these are possible sources. You may become ill after painting, sealing, making repairs, and/or applying pest control treatment in your home or office. In such cases, indoor air pollutants other than formaldehyde may be the cause. If the source is not obvious, you should consult a physician to determine whether or not your symptoms might relate to indoor air quality problems. If your physician believes that you may be sensitive to formaldehyde, you may want to make some measurements.

Testing air quality

Only trained professionals should measure formaldehyde because they know how to interpret the results.

Additional professional companies can be found online, usually under Environmental and Ecological Products, Services or Home and Building Inspection Services, and professional contractor associations. Prices will vary.

Do-it-yourself measuring devices are available, however, these can only provide a "ball park" estimate for the formaldehyde level in the area. If you use such a device, carefully follow the instructions.

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Reducing exposure to formaldehyde inside a building

There are several steps that you can take to reduce exposure to formaldehyde.

Additional Information and Testing

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