Formaldehyde – what are the risks?

Should you be worried about formaldehyde? It really depends on the level of exposure and personal sensitivity levels, but there are simple steps which can reduce the concentration of formaldehyde in your home.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance which is also industrially produced and widely used. Formaldehyde resins are used in many construction materials which can then release formaldehyde gas, making it a common indoor air pollutant.  Concentrations of formaldehyde are typically greater indoors versus out, as sunlight breaks it down. 

Effects:

Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, but certain individuals are more sensitive to these adverse effects than others, such as those with asthma. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer, and whilst research results vary, many health authorities have concluded it is a probable carcinogen based on studies of industrial workers.  These groups have significantly greater exposure than in a typical domestic environment so how much of a concern is it in your home?  You are more likely to have higher concentrations in a newly constructed home with new carpets, fresh paint and new furniture made out of man-made pressed wood products. For sensitive individuals such as babies or asthmatics, it is worth knowing some simple steps to reduce this exposure.

Man-made sources of formaldehyde include:

  • cigarettes
  • open fireplaces and unvented heaters
  • paint and adhesives
  • carpets
  • manufactured wood products (e.g.  MDF or particle board, plywood)

Precautionary actions to consider:

  • allow fresh air to circulate in the home
  • check the formaldehyde content of any pressed wood furniture, especially when room occupants are likely to be sensitive, e.g. babies and asthmatics
  • ideally, buy furniture made from solid wood or formaldehyde free plywood
  • if you have already bought pressed wood furniture, studies have also shown that painting with polyurethane can reduce emissions
  • look for “low VOC” labels on paints and adhesives for reduced emission of volatile organic compounds (note ‘organic’ in this context simply means a carbon-based molecule)
  • avoid smoke and unvented heaters (or ensure good ventilation if there’s no alternative)
  • common plants such as the spider plant have been shown to remove formaldehyde from an indoor environment

Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (a.k.a. tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde)

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Christina on July 24, 2010 at 1:49 am

    Thanks! Didn’t know there was formaldehyde-free plywood. Must get me some!!

    Reply

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