Q: What is formaldehyde?
A: Formaldehyde is a simple chemical compound made of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. All organic life forms—bacteria, plants, fish, animals and humans—naturally produce formaldehyde as part of cell metabolism. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), inhalation of formaldehyde at levels to which most people are normally exposed does not alter the formaldehyde levels naturally present in the body.i
Q: What are the benefits of formaldehyde in consumer and commercial products?
A: Formaldehyde is an essential building block chemical in the production of hundreds of products. Because of formaldehyde's unique properties, few compounds can replace it as a raw material without compromising quality and performance or making the final product more expensive. Little, if any, formaldehyde remains in the final products that consumers use.
Q: Is consumer exposure to formaldehyde something to be concerned about?
A. Worker exposures and formaldehyde uses in consumer products are extensively regulated. In fact, formaldehyde is one of the most well-studied compounds in commerce and its risk profile has been well characterized. It metabolizes quickly in the body; it breaks down rapidly, is not persistent and does not accumulate in the environment. The WHO, among others, has concluded that there is no scientific evidence that children are more or less susceptible to formaldehyde exposures than adults.ii
Q: Are there standards in place to limit workplace exposures?
A: When formaldehyde is used properly, following federal guidelines, workers are appropriately protected. Standards for workplace exposures established by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) include limits on exposure levels, requirements for monitoring employee exposures in the workplace, protective measures and communication and training about hazards. Manufacturers that produce or use formaldehyde are required to comply with all OSHA standards.
Q: Does formaldehyde exposure cause cancer?
A: It is well-established in the scientific literature that any potential association between inhaled formaldehyde and cancer is linked only to significant and prolonged exposures to inhaled formaldehyde.iii Based on the most recent scientific studies, it is unlikely that inhaled formaldehyde is capable of triggering the mechanisms in the body that are necessary to cause cancer of the blood, like a form of leukemia, because inhaled formaldehyde does not get past the nasal tissues (because it is quickly metabolized) to reach the bone marrow where blood diseases originate.iv
Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is a very rare form of cancer that was reported to be associated with exposure to formaldehyde in a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on 25,000 workers in 10 different plants where formaldehyde was used or manufactured. Of the 10 or so total cases of NPC in four studies conducted in almost 60,000 industrial workers or embalmers with potential exposure to formaldehyde, six came from a single plant. It has now been reported that five of these six cases were likely due to the workers' previous or post-employment exposures to other known risk factors for upper respiratory tract cancers.
Q: Is there a link between formaldehyde and asthma?
A: Numerous government agencies and expert scientific bodies have concluded that the scientific evidence does not support an association between asthma and formaldehyde exposures. The WHO concluded that "[t]here is no evidence indicating an increased sensitivity to sensory irritation to formaldehyde among people often regarded as susceptible (asthmatics, children and older people)." v A National Academy of Sciences report summarized the available controlled clinical studies, evaluating if formaldehyde causes irritation in asthmatic and non-asthmatic people, and found no differences in sensitivity between the two groups (NAS 2004, NRC 2007): "... asthmatic individuals exposed to airborne formaldehyde at exposure concentrations at or below 3 ppm do not appear to be at greater risk of suffering airway dysfunction than non-asthmatic individuals." vi
» Infographic: Typical Formaldehyde Exposures Do Not Cause Asthma
Q: Can people experience health issues from building materials produced with formaldehyde?
A: Formaldehyde levels in typical indoor environments are below 0.1 ppm—well below the threshold that triggers sensory irritation in most people.vii The federal government, following Congressional legislation, is currently finalizing a regulation that would nationalize emission limits set under California's airborne toxics control measure to control formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.viii Through many years of voluntary stewardship efforts and as a result of the California regulation, formaldehyde resin producers and wood panel manufacturers are now capable of making products that emit at, or near, naturally occurring background levels from wood itself.
» Formaldehyde: Housing Applications
i World Health Organization (WHO). (2010). WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants. Available at http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/128169/e94535.pdf.
ii World Health Organization (WHO). (2010). WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants. Available at http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/128169/e94535.pdf.
iii See, e.g., Kerns, et al. (1983). "Carcinogenicity of Formaldehyde in Rats and Mice after Long-Term Inhalation Exposure." Cancer Research, 43: 4382-92.
iv Kun, L., Collins, L. B., Ru, H., Bermudez, E, and Swenberg, J. "Distribution of DNA adducts caused by inhaled formaldehyde is consistent with induction of nasal carcinoma but not leukemia." Toxicological Sciences. Vol. 116, no. 2. 2010, pp. 441-451. http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/116/2/441.short
v World Health Organization (WHO). (2010). WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants. Available at http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/128169/e94535.pdf.
vi National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Subcommittee on Emergency and Continuous Exposure Guidance Levels for Selected Submarine Contaminants, Committee on Toxicology, National Research Council. Emergency and Continuous Exposure Guidance Levels for Selected Submarine Contaminants. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 2007, p. 108. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11170
vii Pyatt, D., Natelson, E., and Golden, R. "Is inhalation exposure to formaldehyde a biologically plausible cause of lymphohematopoietic malignancies?." Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Vol. 51, no. 1. 2008, pp.119-133. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230008000500
Golden, R., Pyatt, D., and Shields P. G. "Formaldehyde as a potential human leukemogen: an assessment of biological plausibility." CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology. Vol 36, no. 2. 2006, pp. 135-153. http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408440500533208
viii Proposed Formaldehyde Emissions Standards for Composite Wood Products, 78 Fed. Reg. 34820 (June 10, 2013), Docket No. EPA-HQ-OPPT-2012-0018