Q: What is formaldehyde?

A: Formaldehyde All Around Us Formaldehyde is naturally occurring, all around us, and used to the benefit of all Americans. Since its discovery in 1859, formaldehyde has become an essential ingredient in the development of a variety of everyday items.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde a day as a normal part of our metabolism. Inhaled formaldehyde is rapidly metabolized and ultimately converted to carbon dioxide and exhaled. Formaldehyde does not accumulate in the body.

Formaldehyde also occurs as a by-product from all combustion processes, such as forest fires, automotive exhaust and cooking. Low levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables, including apples, carrots and bananas. It does not accumulate in the environment or within plants and animals.

Q: Why is formaldehyde important?

A: The ability for formaldehyde, in combination with countless other molecules, to chemically react and subsequently build resilient structures makes it one of the most functionally important chemical building blocks in the manufacturing world today. It plays an integral role in a wide variety of industrial applications across the automotive, aviation, textile, energy and building and construction industry sectors, among others.

Formaldehyde’s unique and versatile chemical properties make it a common and beneficial part of modern life. From the construction industry to the automotive, aerospace and health care industries – products based on formaldehyde technologies have broad roles in the economy, supporting 963,000 jobs and $553 billion in sales in the United States.
Formaldehyde Housing Applications Formaldehyde Automotive Applications


 

Q: Is there a safer alternative to formaldehyde?

A: Formaldehyde is perhaps best known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties, but formaldehyde-based chemistry is used to make a wide range of value-added products. For example, the wood-based panel industry relies on the dependable performance of formaldehyde-based resins for composite wood products. Few, if any, compounds can replace formaldehyde chemistry in creating high-quality resins without compromising quality and performance, or making the final products more expensive. While formaldehyde is an essential building block in a diverse range of wood products, its end use is primarily in a converted form. That means that virtually all of the formaldehyde is consumed in making the final product.

Q: Is the general public exposed to formaldehyde on a daily basis?

A: People actually produce and exhale formaldehyde themselves. If a person is exposed to external sources of formaldehyde, the body breaks it down rapidly. Formaldehyde is one of the most-well studied substances and we know a lot about how to use it safely.

The general effects of formaldehyde on the human body are well-known. According to the large body of research available, the levels of formaldehyde to which the public is exposed are not high enough to cause adverse health effects.

Q: Should people be concerned that formaldehyde is designated as a high priority chemical under TSCA

A: TSCA is essential to ensuring protection of human health and the environment. EPA’s review of formaldehyde under TSCA will hopefully reassure workers and consumers that uses of formaldehyde chemistry are appropriately evaluated and managed using transparent, science-based standards to draw conclusions. EPA has made clear that designation as a high priority chemical “does not constitute a finding of risk” and should not be cause for concern.

Q: Should workers in industries where formaldehyde is used be concerned?

A: Formaldehyde plays an integral role in a wide variety of industrial applications across the automotive, aviation, textile, energy, and building and construction sectors. The weight of the scientific evidence supports the conclusions that formaldehyde does not cause leukemia and there are clearly defined safe thresholds for formaldehyde exposure – thresholds that have been utilized by international scientific and regulatory bodies. It has been extensively studied, reviewed and regulated, when warranted, by the U.S. federal government.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has standards for workplace exposures to formaldehyde. These comprehensive health standards include limits on permissible exposures, requirements for monitoring employee exposures in the workplace, protective measures—including engineering controls, medical surveillance and communication—and training about hazards. Current standards, such as the OSHA Formaldehyde Standard, 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1048, protect the health of millions of workers and provide workplace controls for the production, storage, handling, and use of this important chemical.

According to the large body of research available, low environmental levels of formaldehyde that people may be exposed to do not cause negative health effects (e.g., Rhomberg 2011; Swenberg et al. 2013, Nielsen et al. 2016; Mundt et al. 2017). Notably, in 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) set indoor air quality guidelines for short- and long-term formaldehyde exposures of 100 ug/m3 (0.08 ppm).1 The WHO evaluated potential non-cancer and cancer effects and established air quality guidelines based on a threshold approach, concluding that formaldehyde exposures that do not induce sensory irritation are unlikely to lead to increased adverse effects. The WHO’s work was re-evaluated in 2016 to take into consideration new toxicology studies and published updates to key cancer epidemiology studies. The 2016 re-evaluation by Nielsen et al.2 found that the guideline value was still scientifically valid, that it remained health protective, and that the new data did not indicate a need to revise the value. In addition, Health Canada, the European Chemicals Agency and the German MAK Commission all recognize safe levels of formaldehyde exposure.

Q: What is the purpose of an IRIS assessment and how does it differ from a TSCA risk evaluation?

A: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to facilitate the development and dissemination of human health assessments of chemicals. This platform was intended as a tool to support and guide consistent risk management decisions. Over the past several years, however, the National Academy of Sciences and stakeholders have called for reforms to the IRIS assessment program in order to improve the scientific rigor and methods used to draw conclusions regarding human health risk. Notably, an IRIS assessment includes two of four required steps in the risk evaluation process (e.g. hazard identification and dose-response). The IRIS hazard assessment includes no consideration of actual human exposures or their relation to human health risk. Unlike IRIS, TSCA risk evaluations are required to conduct a full evaluation of available information related to hazard, dose- response, exposure and risk to determine human health risk. Additionally, under TSCA, EPA must use scientific standards and base its decisions on the best available science and on the weight of the scientific evidence.


1 World Health Organization (WHO). 2010 Formaldehyde. In: Selected pollutants. WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality. WHO, Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, Denmark, pp. 103-156.

2 Nielsen, G.D., Larsen, S.T., Wolkoff, P. (2016). Re-evaluation of the WHO (2010) formaldehyde indoor air quality guideline for cancer risk assessment. Arch Toxicol 91(1):35-61.

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