Formaldehyde in your Environment: what, where, why and how.

Formaldehyde in your Environment: what, where, why and how.

Modern society has become so technologically developed that it is hard to keep track of all the chemicals that we are exposed to during our daily lives. In some cases, products will present labeling and regulations that keep us from bringing toxic and harmful chemicals to our homes. However, in most cases, we have little knowledge or control over what kind of chemicals enter our houses and compromise the indoor air quality. One of these “sneakier” chemicals is formaldehyde, a compound commonly used for the production of resins and coatings. With an annual production of 30 million tons, it is extremely important to understand how this compound is found and reacts in our indoor environment.

What is Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a chemical compound that naturally occurs as a gas but because of its chemical properties it can be dissolved in water and transformed into gels, glues, resins, and coatings that are part of the composition of many household materials. Formaldehyde is also highly volatile, which means that it is easily transformed into its gaseous form, spreading out through the environment and migrating between different rooms in buildings through air ducts and ventilation systems. This property is found in several other harmful chemicals forming the group of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are commonly associated with the sick building syndrome (SBS).

Aerosol Cleaning Products and other sources of Formaldehyde

Because it is a common product of combustion processes it is found naturally in our own bodies being detected in the bloodstreams of humans. However, this means it is also produced in processes of indoor combustion, being emitted by stoves, candles and incents. But since formaldehyde can be transformed from its gaseous forms into liquids and other polymers it can also be found in an extensive list of materials. Some of the most common sources of formaldehyde in the household are:

  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning products that have terpenes
  • Paper towels
  • Cigarettes
  • Anti-shrink, anti-wrinkle clothes
  • Polyester bedsheets
  • Pillows
  • Furniture or curtains that are crease-resistant, stretch-proof, water repellent and water-proofed
  • Skin care creams
  • Nail polish and nail polish remover
  • Hair straighteners
  • Toothpastes
  • Furniture made of manufactured wood

To certify you are not bringing formaldehyde into your household check the composition of the products purchased for formaldehyde or methanal, formalin, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, formalin, formol, and carbonyl hydride, which are all commercial names used for formaldehyde.

How does formaldehyde behave throughout time?

Because of its natural tendency to dissolve as a gas, formaldehyde tends to be released from the materials through time and disperse through the air. This could be a positive aspect considering that as time passes, the concentration of formaldehyde in the household tends to decay. However, since formaldehyde is normally a heavier gas than natural air, it also has the tendency to sink in the environments and deposit on carpets, tables, and other surfaces. Therefore, one of the most important recommendations to improve the indoor air quality is to ensure proper ventilation of the area. By creating an environment that has a constant renewal of indoor air, the rates in which formaldehyde concentration decays is faster resulting in a healthier environment.

Why is formaldehyde exposure important?

Formaldehyde has been recognized as a carcinogenic (promotes the development of cancer in healthy human cells) by several different health agencies and has also been associated with nasopharynx, leukemia and paranasal sinus (1). At low concentrations, formaldehyde can cause significant damage to the human body even impairing the development of babies when mothers are exposed to the chemical. Minor effects of exposure involve skin, eye, nose and irritation and in some cases headaches. Because of its strong odor, formaldehyde can be quickly detected in the environment after reaching concentrations of at least 1 ppm. On the other hand, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that for an average 8-hour day exposure, the permissible concentration of formaldehyde must be below 0.75 ppm. In this case, if your working environment starts presenting typical odor of formaldehyde it also means that the environment is exceeding the threshold concentration considered safe.

Exposure can occur by inhalation, skin/eye contact or ingestion. Inhalation, which is the most common source of exposure, leads to headaches, rhinitis, dyspnea and in cases of higher doses can cause burning, lacrimation, pulmonary edema or even pneumonia. Skin and eye contact, which normally occur through interaction with products that have high levels of formaldehyde in their composition, can cause irritation with allergic dermatitis and irritation. At higher concentrations, exposure to the eyes may lead to corneal opacification and blindness. Finally, the ingestion of products that present formaldehyde is extremely dangerous. Ingesting as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of formaldehyde has been reported to lead to the death of human adults. Ingesting lower amounts may still cause corrosive injury to the gastrointestinal, nausea, vomiting, pain and perforation. Depression, coma, renal failure and respiratory distress have also been reported as common side effects of ingestion of formaldehyde.

Chronic exposure to formaldehyde is quite common due to the fact that it is present in several different household materials. Additionally, its particular property and ability to sink into the indoor environment also enables common chronic exposure which presents carcinogenic and developmental effects. Cases of nasal tumors and nasal cancers have been positively linked to the inhalation of formaldehyde. Moreover, chromosomal aberrations have also been seen in humans that present chronic exposure to formaldehyde affecting gestation and fetus development.

In time, these continuous exposures create what has been called “the sick building syndrome” (SBS) which has been considered a pathology that afflicts occupants of a certain building in a generalized manner. SBS is marked by the incidence of headache, fatigue, irritation of nose, throat and eyes and itchiness that becomes aggravated or has its onset when the individual enters the building. Most of the studies on SBS have been carried out in office buildings as a result of association and organized movements towards targeting a healthier workspace. However, infrastructures as schools and housing complexes are as important and as influential in our overall health. Thus, monitoring the overall health of occupants in buildings should be a common practice to detect and address SBS.

How to reduce exposure to formaldehyde?

How can exposure to formaldehyde be reduced?

Since formaldehyde is present in so many different forms and products used daily, keeping a close eye on the amount of formaldehyde present in closed environments can be quite challenging. However, the American Cancer Society presents some recommendations to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde:

  • Promote adequate indoor ventilation: renewing the indoor air periodically, alongside ensuring constant and adequate airflow helps promote better indoor air quality. Because formaldehyde is highly volatile, its concentration slowly decays through a time when ventilation is improved.
  • Lower humidity in a closed environment: humidity is a key element to increase the presence of molds and other organisms that release formaldehyde in their natural combustion processes. By reducing humidity and limiting the dissemination of these organisms, the concentration of formaldehyde inserted in the environment will also decay.
  • Do not allow indoor smoking: cigarettes present several different chemical compounds that are positively linked with cancers and other SBS symptoms. Indoor smoking enhances the exposure of secondary smokers to these chemical and because of the sinking property of most of these toxic compounds, the concentration of formaldehyde and other chemicals can increase rapidly. By not allowing the release of these VOCs in the indoor environment, concentrations of formaldehyde and other chemicals will also be reduced.
  • Allow for product off-gassing: since formaldehyde is present in several household products such as furniture, it is recommended that a resting period is applied immediately after the unwrapping of the product. Ideally, the product is left to rest in a ventilated area allowing for the release of formaldehyde immediately and a decrease in its original concentration.
  • Wash new clothes before wearing them: several new clothing products present formaldehyde in their composition for commercial purposes. In this sense, similar to the procedure applied with furniture, it is important to remove the initial concentration of formaldehyde from these products. In this case, washing the clothes can drastically reduce the concentration present on them. It is also recommended to carry out a similar procedure with bed linens, towels, and other fabric that present formaldehyde in their composition.
  Wash new clothes before wearing them

How can IAQ help?

Clearly, keeping an eye on the chemical composition of your indoor environment is of crucial importance to ensure healthy indoor air quality. However, since these compounds might not be easily detected it is important to proceed with seasonal assessments of your office building, school and household to verify the level of chemicals present. In this case, Indoor Air Quality can provide adequate, reliable and high-quality assistance by analyzing the overall air quality of your indoor environment and providing effective solutions such as formaldehyde testing.

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