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Monday, June 27, 2011

Avoiding Toxins - Formaldehyde

This post is part of an ongoing series on Avoiding Toxins in our Lives.  To read more on how to avoid exposure from toxins and eliminate them from your home  click here.


Just recently formaldehyde was changed from a substance that was listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” to “known to be a human carcinogen “ The EPA has also come out with its own statement on the risks of formaldehyde.  Interestingly enough, the European Union is making plans to phase out all use of formaldehyde by 2014.
Where does Formaldehyde come from?
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic chemical compound.  Most of us first encountered formaldehyde in science class when it came time to dissect specimens. I will never forget that smell. By the time I reached my senior year I could no longer dissect animals because I was highly reactive to it. Most students would get used to the smell but, the smell continued to make me sick all year long. After discussing with my teacher that my mother had been a chemist assistant that worked with formaldehyde when she was pregnant with me, it was decided that I had a bona fide formaldehyde sensitivity.

Why Should You Avoid Exposure To Formaldehyde?
According to the National Cancer Institute  formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can be fatal.
Formaldehyde can cause
  • irritation of the eyes, and nose Acute  formaldehyde exposure concentrations > 0.05 ppm can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and sinuses.  Resulting in  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.
  • 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 sleepSource
  • Children can be more susceptible to health effects of formaldehyde. As their immune system is still in development stage, chemicals like formaldehyde can easily trigger reactions in them. In kids, even a small amount of formaldehyde can lead to formaldehyde allergy symptoms like dermatitis, headache, or asthma.
  • Some laboratory studies suggest that formaldehyde may affect the lymphatic and blood systems. Based on both data from  studies and the experimental data from laboratory research, NCI investigators have concluded that exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans.
  • Menstrual Disorders Several studies have reported that menstrual irregular- ties/disorders may be related to occupational and/or residential formaldehyde exposures
  • Formaldehyde has been linked to joint pain,chronic fatigue, birth defects, and genetic damage
  •  A great percentage of people are hypersensitive to the irritant effects of formaldehyde (I fall in that category apparently) even at lowest of levels. People often develop hypersensitivity after breathing formaldehyde vapors during a renovation of home or remodeling or working in a carpet or fabric store.   
What is Formaldehyde Used For?
If this list seems long it is because it is. Because formaldehyde is used primarily as a preservative and antibacterial it is used in a wide range of products.  As such it is used commonly in
  • Cosmetics and Toiletries such as antiperspirants, makeup, bubble bath, bath oils, shampoos, creams, mouthwashes and deodorants . It  is used as a preservative as a preservative and to inhibit bacterial growth.   In a Danish study of 285 shampoos, nearly 30 percent of them were found to contain formaldehyde but none of them listed it as an ingredient. The reason for this, was the formaldehyde was present as an unintentional contaminant, because the raw materials used in the cosmetics had been preserved with it. Source
  • Household  Cleaners it is used as an anti fungal and bacterial
  • Particle Board Furniture
  • Paints
  • Disinfectants
  • Nail Polishes and Polish Removers
  • Building Materials That new house smell is from the vocs and the formaldehyde (mobile homes are notorious for the formaldehyde because of the high use of particle board (think FEMA trailers)
  • Wrinkle Free Fabrics that new clothes smell  is formaldehyde.
  • Vaccines – as a preservative and to kill the bacteria
  • Water Proofing – on rain coats and other fabrics
  • Cars  the new car smell is from formaldehyde
  • Food =you can find small amounts of formaldehyde in the food you eat – some cheeses, dried fish and food
  • Cigarettes
  • Melamine Plates
  • Insulation it off gasses for years
  • Paper Products such as grocery bags, waxed papers, facial tissues and paper towels, are treated with urea-formaldehyde to make them stronger
  • Carpet, Carpet Backing and Padding  =formaldehyde is used as a fire retardant in floor covering and carpet backings. Ever smell a new carpet?
  • Vaccines – formaldehyde is used as a preservative and to kill the bacteria in the vaccine
  • Antibacterial (antiseptic) Hand Wash to kill microbes on your hands
  • Nail Hardeners, Nail Polishes, and Nail Removers –that That lovely smell at the nail salon most likely comes from formaldehyde, as it  is an important ingredient in some  nail hardeners
  •  Health and Beauty Products antiperspirants, makeup, bubble bath, bath oils, shampoos, creams, mouthwashes and deodorants
  • Paints, primers and paint-stripping agents
  • Diet Sodas if your  do see aspartame be aware that your body will naturally produce formaldehyde as a result of consuming this artificial sweetener. According to Three Fat Chicks Each can of diet soda will produce approximately 20mg of methanol in the body. The methanol, in turn, will produce 6mg of formaldehyde. The EPA recommends a formaldehyde limit of 2mg per day at most. So, if you’re drinking just one can, you’re already in the danger zone. Now just imagine that you probably drink a 20 ounce bottle not a 12 ounce can a day. Most likely you drink more than one bottle a day. You are polluting your body with 10mg of formaldehyde. That is 5 times the recommended limit set by the EPA.

The Problem with Formaldehyde in Your Home
Most  of us face our greatest risk of exposure to formaldehyde at home. With the formaldehyde present in so many building products and house hold products it is hard to escape.
How much formaldehyde can cause a problem? The eyes, nose, and throat are irritated by formaldehyde vapors at levels as low as 1 part formaldehyde per million parts of air . Low-level exposure can cause teariness, redness, and burning of the eyes, sneezing and coughing, and sore throat. Liquid formaldehyde solutions contacting the eyes can damage the cornea, possibly causing blindness.
Sensitive individuals have reported symptoms at formaldehyde levels around  1 ppm  (Main et al, 1983; Bender et al., 1983).
Additional studies also have supported that health effects can occur in sensitized individuals at 100 ppm when they are exposed chronically to formaldehyde. (Ritchie IM, et al 1987) These sensitized individuals can have exacerbations of symptoms without noticing the smell.

Formaldehyde products usually only emit vapors for 7 to 8 years. The emissions are most detrimental during the first few 365 days and the intensity gradually eases up over the next 7 to 8 years. Most home insulated with Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation had indoor air concentrations of under 0.1 parts per millions (ppm) one year after installation.However uffi when exposed to extreme heat or moisture can begin to emit formaldehyde vapors no matter how old the insulation.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Formaldehyde
  • Ventilation and circulation of outside air into the home is imperative and installing or using exhaust fans is not a mistake. It may reduce your level of contamination to below 0.1 ppm.
  • If formaldehyde is in the insulation, particleboard or sub flooring, it is too difficult or expensive to remove the source walls and floors and cabinets they may be covered with vapor-barriers paint, sealants or even covered with carbon materials
  • If the source of formaldehyde is paneling, plywood or particleboard, you can coat it with special sealers.
  • Air purification to remove chemicals for the air can reduce contamination of your home or office. 
  • Since Formaldehyde off gasses more when the humidity in the house is  above 50%, using a dehumidifier to reduce the humidity will reduce formaldehyde levels.
  • Common houseplants may be able to filter formaldehyde out of indoor air.
  • Solid wood for furniture and cabinets are better for you than particleboard cabinets.
  • Consider living free of chemicals. Make your own natural cleaners and laundry powder
  • Increase the ventilation in your house. Open windows, install exhaust fans. A tightly sealed new home contains more formaldehyde ppm than an older home. More formaldehyde is off gassed in the first year of a new home than at any other time.
  • Wear natural fibers and avoid those that are wrinkle resistant
  • Limit the amount of carpet in your house
  • Avoid products with the following ingredients on the label. These are different formulations of formaldehyde. Remember to read the labels on what you buy.
      • Formalin
      • Methanal
      • Methyl aldehyde
      • Methylene oxide
      • Morbicid acid
      • Oxymethylene
      • methaldehyde
      • methanal
      • methyl aldehyde
      • methylene glycol
      • methylene oxide
      • oxomethane
      • oxymethylene,
      • paraform, paraformaldehyde
  • Try to avoid cheaply made furniture made form particle board and plywood.
  • If you have an older house check to see if your insulation is not Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation. It was typically used in hard to reach places.

The purpose of this article is not to alarm but rather open our eyes to every day contaminants. It is my hope that you will make at least one small change in your life after reading this. I know that after researching this I will NOT be drinking diet sodas and I will be on the look out for the other labeled ingredients to avoid them.


Jackie said...

I heard about this recently. Pretty amazing. I didn't know that our bodies could produce formaldehyde though! I don't drink soda anyway, but it's one less reason to miss it.

Lisa - the Granola Catholic said...

Jackie I knew that formaldehyde was not good for us, but until I researched this post - I did not know how bad it was, and the fact that aspartame breaks down to become formaldehyde in our bodies, that just blew me away. We don't have soda here except for the occasional party, but we will certainly not buy any diet ones. I don't want to poison my guests

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Dana said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. I have a skin sensitivity to formaldehyde so I already avoid much of this stuff. However, I do love Diet Coke. I have recently been battling some health issues and have considered giving up the daily diet coke. I am now even more motivated. Thank you for posting! I'd love it if you checked out my blog as well at

Lisa - the Granola Catholic said...

Dana, I have had problems that can be attributed to formaldehyde since I was little. Mostly asthma type symptoms. I was one of those who grew up in the 70's - the age of polyester. And every time you washed those clothes they gave off a formaldehyde smell. Thank goodness my mother had the sense to line dry the clothes after. Since heat causes formaldehyde to off gas more.

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