Formaldehyde is a colorless gas at room temperature. It is widely used in many consumer products, including building materials, pressed wood, cosmetics, shoe-care products, and textiles. It is also used as a disinfectant and as a preservative, including in mortuaries and medical labs.
Worldwide production of formaldehyde is estimated to be more than 6 billion pounds per year.
Because formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC), products that contain formaldehyde emit it into the air. As a result, most exposure to formaldehyde comes from the air, particularly indoor air. People can absorb formaldehyde through breathing, eating, and through their skin.
- Home furnishings made of composite wood or pressed wood, like couches, cabinets, cribs, and counter tops are likely sources of formaldehyde.
- Building materials, including carpets, plywood, paints, and adhesives can contain formaldehyde.
- Wrinkle-resistant or wrinkle-free clothing is often treated with formaldehyde
- Formaldehyde has been detected in crib sheets and children’s clothing.
- Exposure to formaldehyde is also likely the result of its presence in household cleaners, cosmetics, and glues, as well as tobacco smoke.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the State of California have both made determinations that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.
- Formaldehyde is identified as a cause of leukemia and nose and throat cancer.
- It also irritates the eyes, nose, and throat, and can cause skin problems.
- Asthma, as well as allergic responses, are associated with exposure to formaldehyde.
Although the health effects of formaldehyde exposure are well known, very few restrictions have been placed on its use in consumer products in the United States.
- Countries that regulate formaldehyde in apparel, home textiles, and footwear include Austria, China, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, and South Korea.
- To date there are no limits on the amount of formaldehyde in textiles in the U.S.
- Congress recently placed limits on the amount of formaldehyde that can be released from manufactured wood. These limits will go into effect in 2012.
- Formaldehyde as been classified as a chemical of concern for children in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington.
While these actions are a step in the right direction, they do not adequately protect public health from the dangers posed by formaldehyde.
- State governments should pass policies that restrict the use of formaldehyde in consumer products, especially products used by young children.
- New federal legislation should strengthen federal chemical law to make sure chemicals are tested for health and safety before being put on the market.
- Choose baby products from companies like Hanna Andersson that do not use formaldehyde-containing fabric finishes.
- Avoid manufactured wood products when possible. If you use manufactured wood products, make sure they are formaldehyde-free. Healthy Building Network has a list of brands made without formaldehyde.
- Look for textiles labeled with the Oeko-tex label, which limits the amount of formaldehyde.
- Stay away from clothing labeled pre-shrunk or wrinkle-free.
- Make sure your home is well ventilated.
Natural Resources Defense Council’s formaldehyde fact sheet.