On June 10, 2011, the National Toxicology Program released its 12th Report on Carcinogens, which added formaldehyde to its list of carcinogens, and said it is found in ‘worrisome quantities’ in plywood, particle board, mortuaries and hair salons.

Formaldehyde has long been associated with irritations of the nasal canal, watery eyes, and burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. Symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde can be difficult to identify because they are similar to cold and flu symptoms, as well as sensitivity to other environmental irritants. In some cases exposure may cause nausea, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, skin rashes, and allergic reactions.

While these symptoms may seem relatively minor in light of the convenience and savings of products which include formaldehyde, this new designation of “carcinogen” should be a wake-up call for consumers to reduce their exposure to formaldehyde where possible.

Common sources of formaldehyde in the home

Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of building materials and household products. It is one of the large family of chemical compounds called volatile organic compounds or “VOCs,” meaning that the compound off-gases, or vaporizes, at normal room temperatures.

The following materials and activities are the primary source of formaldehyde exposure:

  • Plywood, pressed wood, particle board, and medium density fiberboard (MDF). These products use glues that contain formaldehyde, and are commonly used in home construction and renovations, and to make ‘economy-grade’ furniture and cabinets.
  • Paints, adhesives, varnishes and floor finishes.
  • Household products such as wallpaper, cardboard and paper products
  • Vehicle exhaust from attached garages or from outdoors
  • Smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Cosmetic products such as nail polish, some hair care products
  • Permanent press clothing

How to minimize risks associated with formaldehyde exposure:

1. Establish a no smoking policy in your home.

Cigarettes and other tobacco products should not be used inside the home. There are many toxic effects of exposure to cigarette smoke, including exposure to formaldehyde, and evidence continues to mount concerning the health effects associated with cigarette smoke.

2. Clean chimneys and wood burning appliances.

Make sure fireplaces and woodstoves are in good working condition to prevent smoke from getting into your living environment. Burn only well-seasoned firewood, and keep your chimney clean and clear of obstructions.

To learn how to maintain wood-burning heater efficiency and safety, read our article 6 Great Wood Heating Tips.

3. Keep idling gas engines away from the home.

Engine exhaust contains a number of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde. If your home has an adjacent carport or garage, be sure the door is well sealed to prevent exhaust fumes from entering the home. Do not idle cars or other gas powered equipment, such as weedeaters, leaf blowers, lawnmowers or snow plows, in attached garages or near open doors or windows. Pay attention to wind direction when using gas-powered machines around the home, especially during summer when windows are more likely to be open.

4. Buy solid wood furniture, or be sure pressed wood products are sealed.

To keep emissions low from pressed wood furniture or cabinets, purchase items with a plastic laminate or coating on all sides. For some building and household products, there are low-formaldehyde options, such as U.L.E.F. (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde), N.A.F. (no added formaldehyde) or C.A.R.B. (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant.

Solid wood furniture contains no formaldehyde, and although more expensive than furniture made using particle board, solid wood furniture will usually last longer than furniture made using glues. Thrift shops and flea markets are good places to find used wood furniture at affordable prices.

5. Increase ventilation during painting projects. Use low-VOC paints.

Ensure there is adequate ventilation during all home painting or varnishing projects, or when installing wall-to-wall carpets using glues or adhesives. Low-VOC and Zero-VOC paints are now readily available at most paint stores, and these paints have the same or higher quality standards of conventional paints.

For a list of Low-VOC and Zero-VOC paints, see our page on Non-toxic Paints.

6. Let new furnishings “off-gas” before bringing indoors.

Allow products that contain formaldehyde to “air out” before bringing them into your home. Open all product packing to expose the products to air as much as possible.

7. Ventilate your home regularly.

Formaldehyde concentrations are higher indoors than they are outdoors, so you can decrease indoor formaldehyde levels by letting in fresh air. Also, high relative humidity increases formaldehyde emissions, so you can use a dehumidifier to reduce relative humidity to recommended levels of 50% in summer and 30% in winter.

The Report on Carcinogens notes that, although workers in manufacturing plants are more exposed to formaldehyde, and thus have higher associated risks, consumers should still avoid contact with formaldehyde where possible.

…formaldehyde is both worrisome and inescapable

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, said that formaldehyde is both worrisome and inescapable. “It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,” he said. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.”

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