- What is formaldehyde?
- Signs and symptoms of exposure
- Is there a medical test for formaldehyde exposure?
- What are possible sources of formaldehyde?
- What factors contribute to the amount of formaldehyde in my home?
- Standards or regulations
- Measuring formaldehyde in the indoor air
- Reducing exposure to formaldehyde inside a building
- Additional information and testing
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.
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.
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:
- Automobile exhaust from cars without catalytic converters
- Cigarettes and other tobacco products
- Fuel in heating and cooking equipment - such as wood stoves, gas kitchen stoves, and kerosene heaters
- Some types of fabric, drapes, and furniture
- Some types of glues and adhesives, including those found in pressed wood products like particleboard, plywood, paneling, and fiberboard
- Some painting, coating, and cleaning products
- Some types of insulation materials
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.
What factors contribute to the amount of formaldehyde in my home?
- Ventilation - If your home lacks enough fresh air, formaldehyde and other air pollutants can build to levels that may cause symptoms.
- Weatherproofing / Insulation - A tightly insulated and sealed building that does not allow enough air exchanges between outside and inside air may have higher levels of formaldehyde and other air pollutants.
- Temperature and Moisture - The amount of moisture and the temperature in the building are factors that can contribute to a buildup of formaldehyde or other indoor air pollutants.
- Formaldehyde-containing Products - When materials or products that contain formaldehyde are present in your home, the amount of formaldehyde, age, location in the building, and where used or operated may all affect the overall amount of formaldehyde in the indoor air.
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.
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.
Reducing exposure to formaldehyde inside a building
There are several steps that you can take to reduce exposure to formaldehyde.
- Increase ventilation - In some cases, this can be done by opening the windows and doors to provide fresh air from the outside. Simple to complex air exchange units or ventilation systems can be purchased to help with air quality problems.
- Maintain a moderate temperature inside of the building - Using air conditioning to avoid high temperatures and a dehumidifier to reduce amount of moisture in the air may help. High temperature and high humidity are two factors that can increase the amount of formaldehyde gas from certain types of construction materials, products, and furnishings.
- Reduce your use of products that contain formaldehyde - Choose replacement or new building materials, products, and furnishings that are low in, or do not contain, formaldehyde. Before buying the product, read the ingredients on the label, or get the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the store or company that makes the product.
- Do careful research before purchasing any “air purifying” or “air cleaning” device - In some cases, the claims of the company that made the product are not supported by scientific or medical research. In addition, the claims may not give complete information about possible side effects of using such equipment.
- Coat or cover materials that contain formaldehyde with another product to decrease off-gassing - Make sure that the coating product does not contain formaldehyde or other possibly harmful ingredients.
- Read and follow directions about installation and use of any item containing formaldehyde - For example, if the MSDS or label instructions state, “use...install with adequate ventilation,” then do so. If it is unclear what is meant by “adequate ventilation,” check with the company that makes the product.
- More information from Environmental Protection Agency
Additional Information and Testing
- Formaldehyde (EPA)
- Indoor Air Quality Resource Guide (Vermont Department of Health)
- Air Quality Testing Firms - These firms offer indoor air quality testing using either their own labs or those of others. It is not a complete list. Inclusion on the list is not a recommendation or endorsement by the Vermont Department of Health.
- Product Information - Contact the manufacturer for information about formaldehyde and other materials used in making the product.