Formaldehyde is an extensively regulated material. Mandatory government regulations set standards to protect human health and the environment. These requirements allow for the safe production, storage, handling and use of this important building block chemical.
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.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has standards that limit formaldehyde emissions from wood products for use in manufactured housing. Three agencies – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – have addressed indoor air exposure to formaldehyde. Since industry voluntarily adopted product emission standards and low-emitting resins were developed, indoor formaldehyde emissions have declined significantly. CPSC determined that independent CPSC action was superfluous given the voluntary actions and low levels of formaldehyde. In 2010, Congress enacted legislation mandating a national emission standard for composite wood products.
Everyday Medical Applications
Every day, formaldehyde is used to create hard capsules that are used to deliver drugs in the form of pills to millions of people worldwide. The formaldehyde-based pill coatings slow the dissolution of the capsule and promote maximum absorption of the medicine.
Topical creams, cosmetics and personal hygiene products contain active ingredients that prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. Some of these ingredients are derivatives of formaldehyde.
Urinary tract infections afflict people worldwide. In the United States and Canada more than $1 billion is spent each year to treat them. The majority of the cases are treated using a derivative of formaldehyde (methenamine). While the chemical reactions may be a bit complex, the bottom line is that formaldehyde kills the infection. Antibiotics represent one alternative to using formaldehyde-based drugs; however, bacterial resistance develops using antibiotics. Bacteria are incapable of developing resistance to formaldehyde, so it remains the treatment of choice.
Nitroglycerin pills placed under the tongue to ease angina attacks and coronary artery disease are also made from a formaldehyde by-product.
Implanted Medical Devices and Prosthetics
Formaldehyde is used to make many types of plastic with very different properties. One of those plastics is used to manufacture such delicate and lifesaving items as artificial heart valves and pacemakers.
It is also used to make artificial limbs. Thousands of people each year, including wounded military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are fitted with prosthetic limbs that allow them to lead fuller lives.
The Life Sciences
The life sciences would be lost without the benefits that formaldehyde provides the industry. The compound is used in research laboratories throughout the world as a tissue preservative and in processes that identify proteins, DNA and RNA. Formaldehyde plays a pivotal role in furthering the study of proteins and genes by the pharmaceutical industry. Since the end of the 19th century, embalmers have used formaldehyde for its preservative and disinfection qualities.