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Formaldehyde link to leukemia confirmed: how to limit exposure in the home

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An awareness of the common sources of formaldehyde in the home can lead to simple mitigation measures.

By Eartheasy Posted Dec 1, 2009

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In October 2009, 23 scientists from 6 countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to re-assess the carcinogenicity of a number of chemical compounds previously classified as carcinogenic to humans. Their report determined that sufficient evidence now exists to link formaldehyde with blood-cell abnormalities that are characteristic of leukemia, a cancer of the blood or bone marrow.

Formaldehyde is a toxic gas that is used as a binding agent in many products including plywood, furniture, carpeting and particle board. Research into formaldehyde toxicity during the 1990s led to the development of hazard assessments for formaldehyde exposure to workers in industrial settings. However, the contaminated air inside the “Katrina trailers” in 2005, which sickened many people, illustrated the health hazards of formaldehyde exposure in the home.

Consumer protection for homeowners from products and materials which contain formaldehyde is limited, and until needed revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act are enacted by Congress, the onus is on the homeowner to identify and mitigate threats associated with formaldehyde. An awareness of the common sources of formaldehyde in the home environment is a good start, and there are some simple measures people can take to limit exposure to formaldehyde.

Common household items which may contain formaldehyde:

  • Pressed wood products: Building products and furnishings made from plywood and particleboard are often the greatest contributors to formaldehyde levels in indoor air. These include particleboard, plywood, paneling, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), pressed wood cabinets and desks, and some wall and floor materials.
  • Combustion appliances: Fumes from heating and cooking equipment such as wood stoves, gas kitchen stoves, propane heaters and stoves, and kerosene heaters.
  • Home furnishings: Some types of fabric, drapes, new carpeting and furniture.
  • Automobile exhaust: Cars without catalytic converters emit varying levels of formaldehyde through the exhaust.
  • Cigarettes and other tobacco products
  • Consumer products: Fingernail hardeners, nail polish, wallpaper, some painting and cleaning products, and permanent press fabrics.
  • Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI): Formaldehyde in older homes built prior to the 1980’s may be present due to the use of urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). UFFI is usually quite safe unless it is not well sealed or it becomes wet and/or exposed, in which case it may begin to release formaldehyde gas into a home’s air supply. Because of the potential for harmful release of formaldehyde, UFFI is not in common use today and is banned in many places.

In general, the indoor air in our homes and workplaces contain higher amounts of formaldehyde than the outdoor air. This is especially so if the structure is less than one year old or a mobile home.

How to limit exposure to formaldehyde in the home:

  • Increase ventilation: In some cases, this can be done by opening the windows and doors to provide fresh air from the outside. Simple to complex air exchange units or ventilation systems can be purchased to help with air quality problems.
  • Avoid high temperature and humidity levels inside the home: Use air conditioning or passive cooling techniques to maintain moderate indoor temperatures, and a dehumidifier to reduce amount of moisture in the air if necessary. High temperature and high humidity are two factors that can increase the amount of formaldehyde gas from certain types of construction materials, products, and furnishings.
  • Reduce your use of products that contain formaldehyde: Avoid buying pressed wood products made with urea-formaldehyde (UF) resin. Consider using formaldehyde-free materials such as solid wood, gypsum board, some hardboard products, stainless steel, adobe, bricks, tile, and plastic. Consider buying antique furniture. Use formaldehyde-free insulation. Before buying new building materials or furnishings, read the ingredients on the label, or get the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the store or company that makes the product.
  • If buying pressed wood products, look for those made with PF or MDI resin: Pressed wood products made with phenol formaldehyde (PF) resin or methylene diisocyanate (MDI) resin emit much less formaldehyde than those made using UF resin. If you do buy pressed wood products, look for those that are sealed with finishes such as veneer, vinyl or other water-resistant coatings. Look for the Composite Panel Association (CPA) or Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association (HPVA) stamps. Products bearing these stamps meet certain formaldehyde emission standards.
  • Be cautious when using appliances that release formaldehyde: Be sure all combustion appliances have exhaust vents leading directly outdoors.
  • Pre-wash permanent-press clothing, sheets and fabrics: In many cases, pre-washing can reduce formaldehyde emissions from these products as much as 60%.
  • Air out products containing formaldehyde before bringing them into the home: New products, where possible, can be ventilated outdoors for several days to reduce formaldehyde emissions.
  • Establish a ‘no smoking’ policy inside the home
  • Provide extra ventilation when using nail polish, hanging wallpaper or when painting indoors.
  • Introduce houseplants which filter indoor air pollutants: Certain houseplants have been identified as effective filters for formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from indoor air. See the list of houseplants identified by NASA researchers as useful in absorbing potentially harmful gases in indoor environments.
  • Seal off the garage: If your home has an attached garage or carport, apply draft-proofing , door sweeps or other sealing measures to ensure that air from the garage is not drifting into the home.

Signs and symptoms of formaldehyde exposure:

It is difficult to assign causality to symptoms associated with formaldehyde exposure. This is because symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, dizziness and irritations of the eyes, nose and throat, while consistent with formaldehyde exposure, may be caused by other factors.

If home occupants become ill following remodeling with pressed wood products or installing new furniture, there may be link to formaldehyde. If illness persists and the source is not obvious, you should consult a physician to determine whether or not your symptoms might relate to indoor air quality problems. If your physician believes that you may be sensitive to formaldehyde, you may want to make some measurements.

Only trained professionals should measure formaldehyde because they know how to interpret the results. If you decide to test your indoor air for formaldehyde, you can find a list of professional companies in the yellow pages under Environmental and Ecological Products and Services or Home and Building Inspection Services. Home test kits are available but they are not consistently accurate and can yield misleading results.

Unless you feel testing is warranted, taking simpler measures as described above may help avoid problems or alleviate symptoms associated with formaldehyde and other indoor air pollutants.

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  • chris

    Modern homes are well sealed which contributes to the presence of indoor pollutants such as formaldehyde.

  • WalnutCreek

    Since moving into our newly built home I have suffered from allergies, especially in the morning. I wonder if the building materials are the cause? Our house is sheeted with particle board and has all new furnishings and carpets. I don't know if this will diminish over time or whether I need to have the air tested in my home. Any ideas?

    • Carole Bittman

      I had a new rug installed and started getting bad reactions. Back then I did not even know the backing of new carpet causes health problems.

  • LorettaM

    What this article fails to mention is that children and pets are often those most affected by pollutants in the home. Thank you for this helpful information. L

  • John

    The association between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia remains debatable. Here is new finding published on Toxi Sci online. The paper is titled "Distribution of DNA Adducts Caused by Inhaled Formaldehyde is Consistent with Induction of Nasal Carcinoma but not Leukemia" . The abstract is listed as follows:

    "Inhaled formaldehyde is classified as a known human and animal carcinogen, causing nasopharyngeal cancer. Additionally, limited epidemiological evidence for leukemia in humans is available; however, this is inconsistent across studies. Both genotoxicty and cytotoxicity are key events in formaldehyde nasal carcinogenicity in rats, but mechanistic data for leukemia are not well established. Formation of DNA adducts is a key event in initiating carcinogenesis. Formaldehyde can induce DNA monoadducts, DNA-DNA cross-links and DNA protein cross-links. In this study, highly sensitive LC-MS/MS-SRM methods were developed and [13CD2]-formaldehyde exposures utilized, allowing differentiation of DNA adducts and DNA-DNA cross-links originating from endogenous and inhalation-derived formaldehyde exposure. The results show that exogenous formaldehyde induced N2-hydroxymethyl-dG monoadducts and dG-dG cross-links in DNA from rat respiratory nasal mucosa, but did not form [13CD2]-adducts in sites remote to the portal-of entry, even when five-times more DNA was analyzed. Furthermore, no N6-HO13CD2-dA adducts were detected in nasal DNA. In contrast, high amounts of endogenous formaldehyde dG and dA monoadducts were present in all tissues examined. The number of exogenous N2-HO13CD2-dG in 1 day and 5 day nasal DNA samples from rats exposed to 10 ppm [13CD2]-formaldehyde was 1.28±0.49 and 2.43±0.78 adducts/107 dG, respectively, while 2.63±0.73 and 2.84±1.13 N2-HOCH2-dG adducts/107 dG and 3.95±0.26 and 3.61±0.95 N6-HOCH2-dA endogenous adducts/107 dA were present. This study provides strong evidence supporting a genotoxic and cytotoxic mode of action for the carcinogenesis of inhaled formaldehyde in respiratory nasal epithelium, but does not support the biological plausibility that inhaled formaldehyde also causes leukemia."

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