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ArticleTechnical Article

Are You Sick from Formaldehyde Exposure?

How can one tell whether one’s symptoms or health problems have been caused by exposure to formaldehyde? - Katrina/FEMA trailer occupant


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Formaldehyde is a potent mucous membrane irritant. As such, acute (short term) formaldehyde exposure concentrations > 0.05 ppm can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and sinuses.  Resulting symptoms include burning, dryness, redness and itching of eyes, nasal dryness, soreness, runniness; sore or dry throat, and sinus congestion or post-nasal drip. Secondary effects associated with these symptoms may include cough, chest tightness, excessive phlegm production, repeated sinus infections, eye infections and possibly bronchitis. In very sensitive individuals these respiratory symptoms may progress to asthma and for those with existing asthma exposure to formaldehyde may precipitate asthmatic attacks.

Formaldehyde exposures even at concentrations as low as 0.04 ppm have been shown to apparently cause sub-clinical respiratory inflammatory responses which can be detected by expired breath analyses to determine nitric oxide (NO) in one’s breath. Such an analysis is the only known test that can demonstrate that formaldehyde can cause adverse health effects at concentrations found in building environments. 

In addition to its effects on the respiratory system, formaldehyde can also affect the central nervous system (CNS). Common CNS symptoms associated with formaldehyde exposures in buildings include frequent headaches, unusual fatigue, lassitude and disturbed sleep.

There are certain patterns in symptom/health responses to formaldehyde levels in indoor environments. These include:

  1. Onset of symptoms in time after moving into a formaldehyde-contaminated indoor environment
  2. Symptoms most severe in those individuals who spend the most time in the formaldehyde-contaminated environment (e.g., full-time homemakers, pre-school age children)
  3. As a general rule symptoms are more severe in young children
  4. Symptoms diminish in severity when away (e.g., visiting parents for several days) and recur on returning
  5. Symptom severity increases with increasing formaldehyde concentration
  6. Symptoms diminish in severity when the structure is ventilated by opening windows
  7. Symptoms increase in severity on very warm, humid days
  8. Symptoms diminish in severity on cool relatively dry days
  9. Symptoms are fewer and less severe in adult males under the age of 65
  10. Symptoms generally decrease in severity over time
  11. Symptoms reported by visitors to the formaldehyde contaminated environment.


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Are You Sick from Formaldehyde Exposure?:  Created on November 1st, 2007.  Last Modified on May 18th, 2010


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About Thad Godish, Ph.D.

Thad Godish, Ph.D., C.I.H., is professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at Ball State University. He directs the university's indoor air quality/indoor environment research, teaching and public service activities.

His research studies have included: formaldehyde contamination of residences and associated health problems; mold contamination of buildings/sampling methods; building radon; indoor air quality problems in school buildings; emissions from combustion appliances/combusted materials; sick building syndrome; and lead-based paint contamination in residences.

He has served as an indoor air quality and industrial hygiene consultant, conducting air quality investigations in hundreds of buildings including residences, private and municipal offices, schools, hospitals and industrial facilities. He has been an expert witness in numerous personal injury legal claims associated with building environments. He is a certified industrial hygienist.



Information provided by The Healthy House Institute is designed to support, not to replace the relationship between patient/physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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