Serious Harm Caused by Formaldehyde


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Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that has harmful health effects


Redecorating one’s home is always exciting. New wooden cabinets, beautiful drapes and tapestry on the freshly painted walls: they all add a new touch to your home.

What you probably don’t realize is that during the painting process you are most probably also inhaling a pungent, colorless, flammable, carcinogenic gas called Formaldehyde. The furniture, drapes and tapestry you thought to be innocuous are usually the main sources of the indoor emission.

What is Formaldehyde?

It is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used in building materials and to produce many household products.

It is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard, glues and adhesives, permanent-press fabrics, paper product coatings, and certain insulation materials.

In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is produced in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes.

Exposure to Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is normally present in both indoor and outdoor air at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts (ppm) of air. Materials containing formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas or vapor into the air. One source of formaldehyde exposure in the air is automobile tailpipe emissions.

Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde resins are often a significant source of the chemical in homes. Other potential indoor sources of formaldehyde include cigarette smoke and the use of unvented fuel-burning appliances, such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters.

Industrial workers who produce formaldehyde or formaldehyde-containing products, laboratory technicians, certain health care professionals, and mortuary employees may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde than the general public. Exposure occurs primarily by inhaling formaldehyde gas or vapour from the air or by absorbing liquids containing formaldehyde through the skin.

Ill effects of exposure

When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm, some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no reaction to the same level of exposure.

Several surveys by the NCI (National Cancer Institute) of professionals who are potentially exposed to formaldehyde in their work, have suggested that these individuals are at an increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer as compared with the general population.

Limiting exposure at home

The use of ‘exterior-grade’ pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure at home is recommended. These products emit less formaldehyde because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins. Pressed-wood products include plywood, paneling, particleboard and fiberboard, and are not the same as pressure-treated wood products, which contain chemical preservatives and are intended for outdoor use.

Before purchasing pressed-wood products, including building materials, cabinetry and furniture, buyers should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products. Formaldehyde levels in homes can also be reduced by ensuring adequate ventilation, moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity levels through the use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

Practically speaking, one may not have much control over what one breathes outside, but one can surely take charge of indoor emissions at home to a great degree with a few precautionary measures. Letting in fresh air and controlling the humidity could greatly ease the assimilation indoors. This is especially true when taking up varnishing and painting projects.

In a nutshell…

If you are looking to paint your building (indoors or outdoors), it helps to make an informed decision while choosing the paint or coating. Quite a few companies have developed low VOC and zero VOC paints that emit only trace quantities of formaldehyde. Some paints also have the ability to absorb formaldehyde from the air, convert it to water vapor, thereby diluting the concentration of the volatile organic compound, and finally refreshing the air.

The author is the President– Decorative at Nippon Paint India

Formaldehyde levels in homes can also be reduced by ensuring adequate ventilation, moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity levels through the use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers.