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Formaldehyde: Is It Still a Problem?

By HHI Staff

What kinds of health effects can be caused by formaldehyde, and is it a problem for everyone? The answers are: many and no. There is plenty of scientific proof that cigarettes cause lung cancer, but we have all heard of somebody who smoked their whole life, only to die at 90 years of age after being hit by a truck. Human beings are varied in not only height, weight and hair color, but also in how much pollution their particular metabolism can tolerate. Formaldehyde and cigarettes affect each one of us differently. Some people aren't bothered at all, while the health of others can be totally destroyed.


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Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation

Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI) was once banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission because it released formaldehyde gas into the living space of houses and made some occupants ill. A short time later, the ban was overturned in the courts on a legal technicality. However, while it is no longer unlawful to use the product, almost no one does, because of the bad publicity that has been associated with it. Even today, in many states, real estate agents must inform prospective buyers if a house contains UFFI. Whether it is a problem in a particular house or not, it is going to be viewed as a liability.

Since formaldehyde is an animal carcinogen, it is suspected that it can have the same effect on humans. However, there may never be proof that it will cause cancer in people because it is unethical for researchers to give a suspected carcinogen to human test subjects. While cancer is the disease that scares most of us, there are many other health effects that should also be of concern. The most common complaints are mucous membrane problems such as eye, nose, or sinus irritation, sore throat, runny nose, sinus congestion or cough. It can also cause a wide range of other symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest pain, wheezing, headaches, fatigue, nausea, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea, or vomiting. Women may experience menstrual irregularities, and it has been shown that it can occasionally trigger asthma attacks.


Update: Can formaldehyde cause cancer?

Although the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure are well known, less is known about its potential long-term health effects. In 1980, laboratory studies showed that exposure to formaldehyde could cause nasal cancer in rats. This finding raised the question of whether formaldehyde exposure could also cause cancer in humans. In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure. Since that time, some studies of industrial workers have suggested that formaldehyde exposure is associated with nasal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer, and possibly with leukemia. In 1995, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen. However, in a reevaluation of existing data in June 2004, the IARC reclassified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.


One of the most insidious problems with formaldehyde is its ability to sensitize people to other pollutants. Once someone has been sensitized they will begin to react to extremely small exposures, levels that were previously not a problem. They then may require a house built with no formaldehyde sources at all. This can be very expensive, because formaldehyde is used in so many products. For example, it is used in clothing to make it wrinkle resistant.

The people who are most at risk are young children, the elderly, someone who is already ill, and pregnant women. This explains why construction workers aren't often affected - they are usually healthy adult males.

Health effects show up most often in mobile homes because they are constructed with a large amount of particle board and wall paneling. They are also built fairly tight so the gas can't easily escape. However, a conventional house that is built with these same materials can also contain unhealthy amounts of formaldehyde. It is not unusual to measure higher levels of formaldehyde in a house with a particle board subfloor than would occur if the same house was insulated with UFFI.

The waterproof glues used in oriented strand board and exterior grade plywood emit 10 to 20 times less formaldehyde than the less expensive interior glues. Therefore, the particle board subflooring and the sheets of wall paneling, that are obviously used indoors, can be major sources of formaldehyde. A very easy way to reduce formaldehyde levels would be to use exterior grade plywood for subflooring rather than particleboard. Solid wood or metal closet shelves are much less polluting than medium density fiberboard shelving.

Over the last 20 years, manufacturers have drastically reduced the emission levels of their products, but there are still people who have complaints, sometimes very severe complaints. A few products are being stamped with a "low emissions" label, but they still give off more formaldehyde than they would if they were made with exterior glue.

Kitchen cabinets are almost always loaded with formaldehyde because of the shelving and veneered end panels. Many ready made cabinets are also sprayed with a very potent acid catalyzed formaldehyde based finish. Fortunately, there are some solutions that can be used if your client wants to have a low-formaldehyde kitchen. A standard countertop can be covered with laminate on top, bottom, and all edges to seal in a good deal of the formaldehyde emissions from the particle board core. Stainless steel, Corian, and ceramic tile are less polluting but more costly possibilities. If cabinets are being custom made, most shops (at an added expense) can build the cases out of solid wood. There are even quality designer-style steel cabinets available.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing.)


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)



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Formaldehyde: Is It Still a Problem?:  Created on June 27th, 2007.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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