Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to formaldehyde can result in respiratory symptoms, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. The EPA has designated formaldehyde as a probable cause of cancer in humans.
Exposure to formaldehyde may occur by breathing contaminated indoor air, tobacco smoke, engine exhaust, or ambient urban air. Everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the air that has off-gassed from products, including composite wood products. Carpets, upholstery, and gypsum board do not contain significant amounts of formaldehyde when new. However, they may trap formaldehyde that is emitted into the air from other products and later release it into the indoor air. Formaldehyde levels in indoor air can vary depending on temperature, humidity, and air ventilation within the indoor space.
Formaldehyde is used mainly as an intermediate in the synthesis of other chemicals and to produce resins used in composite wood products such as plywood, particle board, and fiberboard. Formaldehyde is also found in some household cleaners, paints, textiles, landscaping products, pesticides, and is used as a preservative in some medicinal and personal care products. Ozone can react with other VOCs to create formaldehyde.
Typically, formaldehyde levels originating from newly installed building materials or furnishings will drop off over time. The process can be accelerated by increasing temperature, humidity, and ventilation.
High levels of airborne formaldehyde have been detected in indoor air, where it is released from various consumer products such as building materials and home furnishings. One survey reported formaldehyde levels ranging from 0.10 to 3.68 parts per million (ppm) in homes. Higher levels have been found in newly manufactured or mobile homes than in older, conventional homes.
Formaldehyde has also been detected in ambient air; the average concentrations reported in U.S. urban areas were in the range of 11 to 20 parts per billion (ppb). The major sources appear to be power plants, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, and engine exhaust emissions.
The currently accepted limit of formaldehyde in indoor air that should prevent adverse health effects (e.g., respiratory irritation and cancer) is 100 ppb.
The choice of methods used to reduce indoor air formaldehyde levels is unique to each situation. The most common methods used include:
Removing formaldehyde-emitting products from the home, directly reducing formaldehyde levels and preventing other materials in the area, such as carpet and gypsum board, from absorbing and then re-emitting formaldehyde.
Introducing large amounts of fresh air into the home. Increasing ventilation by opening doors and windows, and by using exhaust fans to air out indoor spaces.
Sealing the surfaces of formaldehyde-emitting products that are not already laminated or coated.
Sealing completely with a material that does not contain formaldehyde.
Installing composite wood products made with resins meeting the Ultra Low Emission Formaldehyde (ULEF) or No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) specifications of the California Air Resource Board.
Testing for Formaldehyde
Eagle Industrial Hygiene Associates can assist you with air testing to determine levels of formaldehyde in your home or office. We send you a monitoring device with instructions. You simply hang the device in the space of interest for 24 hours, return it to us in the pre-paid shipping package, and we will provide you with results in less than a week. The test method and laboratory analysis method conform to standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.