All life forms–bacteria, plants, fish, animals and humans–naturally produce formaldehyde as part of cell motabolism.
Formaldehyde is one of of the most well-studied and well-understood compounds in commerce. Federal agencies including FDA, EPA, OSHA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have extensively evaluated the safety of formaldehyde and approved its use in a variety of applications.
Studies show that formaldehyde does not accumulate in the body; it is quickly broken down by the body’s natural metabolic processes.
Uses & Benefits
Formaldehyde is an essential building block chemical in the production of hundreds of items that improve everyday life. Little, if any, formaldehyde remains in the final products that consumers use.
Across the agricultural industry, formaldehyde helps American families access safe meat, poultry, and aquaculture products. Formaldehyde helps protect livestock against diseases capable of causing catastrophic economic losses for farming operations across the United States. Federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, oversee formaldehyde’s agricultural applications, improving safe use practices.
Formaldehyde technology helps make vehicles lighter and more energy efficient. Formaldehyde-based resins are used to make interior molded components and under-the-hood components that need to withstand high temperatures. These resins are also used in the production of highly durable exterior primers, clear coat paints, tire-cord adhesives, brake pads and fuel system components.
Health Care Applications
Formaldehyde has a long history of safe use in the manufacture of vaccines, anti-infective drugs and hard-gel capsules. For example, formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses so they don’t cause disease, such as the influenza virus in making the influenza vaccine.
Personal Care and Consumer Products
Formaldehyde-based chemistry is essential in the production of many personal care 1 and consumer items. These products may contain formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, which act as a preservative to kill microorganisms and prevent growth of bacteria and other pathogens, extending product shelf life.
Building and Construction
Formaldehyde-based resins are used to manufacture composite and engineered wood products used extensively in cabinetry, countertops, moldings, furniture, shelving, stair systems, flooring, wall sheathing, support beams and trusses and many other household furnishings and structures. Glues that use formaldehyde as a building block are exceptional bonding agents, delivering high-quality performance that is also economical.
The wood products industry uses formaldehyde-based resins in a wide range of panel and board products, enabling sustainable use of forestry resources and minimizing waste. For example, composite wood panels are typically made from recovered wood waste that might otherwise be burned or disposed of in a landfill.
Formaldehyde is a natural substance produced by every living organism. It is naturally present in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, coffee and alcoholic beverages. Formaldehyde is also produced in the human body as a part of normal functions to build the basic materials needed for important life processes.
Formaldehyde is naturally present in the human body and is quickly broken down by the body’s natural metabolic processes Studies show that formaldehyde does not accumulate in the body. In the environment, formaldehyde is rapidly broken down in the air by moisture and sunlight, or by bacteria in soil or water. Uses of formaldehyde are effectively regulated, and government oversight has been extensive:
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the safety of formaldehyde and approved its use as an indirect food additive in a number of materials having contact with food. FDA also has indicated that formaldehyde can be used in nail hardener products.2
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has standards for workplace exposures to formaldehyde that provide comprehensive protection for employees through the implementation of good industrial hygiene practices.3
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has long had standards in place that limit formaldehyde emissions from wood products used in manufactured housing.4
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)5, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) 6, and HUD – have extensively evaluated and controlled indoor air exposure to formaldehyde. Industry voluntarily adopted product emission standards and developed low-emitting formaldehyde-based resins in the 1980s, and indoor formaldehyde emissions have declined significantly since then. CPSC determined that independent CPSC action was unnecessary, given the voluntary actions and low levels of formaldehyde. The state of California established a performance-based regulatory standard in 2007.7 And in 2010, Congress, at industry’s urging, enacted legislation mandating a national emission standard for composite wood products.
All life forms—bacteria, plants, fish, animals and humans—naturally produce formaldehyde as part of cell metabolism. Formaldehyde is also an essential building block chemical in the production of hundreds of items such as in vaccines or personal care items.1 However, very little, if any, formaldehyde remains in the final products that consumers use.
Small amounts of formaldehyde have long been used in the manufacture of viral and bacterial vaccines. Some vaccines, such as the polio vaccine, use the entire virus to elicit an immune response and protect against future infection. Formaldehyde is used to inactivate the virus or bacteria in the vaccine before it is administered to the patient. Formaldehyde can also be used to detoxify bacterial toxins in vaccines, such as the toxin used to make the diphtheria vaccine. Formaldehyde is also added as a preservative in some vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria or fungi. The amount of formaldehyde when used in vaccines is so small compared to the amount that occurs naturally in the body that it does not pose a safety concern.
Are people exposed to formaldehyde?
According to information from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde is typically present in both indoor and outdoor air at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air—well below the threshold that is irritating to most people.8
Formaldehyde is an extensively regulated material. Mandatory government regulations set standards for the safe production, storage, handling and use of formaldehyde to protect human health and the environment. Formaldehyde is one of the most well studied compounds in commerce, and its risk profile has been well characterized. According to the CDC, formaldehyde metabolizes quickly in the body; it breaks down rapidly, is not persistent and does not accumulate in the environment.9 The World Health Organization, among others, has concluded that there is no scientific evidence that children are more or less susceptible to formaldehyde exposures than adults.10
Does formaldehyde exposure cause cancer?
It is well established in the scientific literature that any potential association between inhaled formaldehyde and cancer is linked only to significant and prolonged exposures. Based on the most recent scientific studies, it is unlikely that inhaled formaldehyde is capable of triggering the mechanisms in the body that are necessary to cause cancer of the blood, like leukemia, because inhaled formaldehyde does move past the nasal tissues (since it is quickly metabolized) to reach the bone marrow where blood diseases originate.11
Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is a very rare form of cancer, and the results from human studies have not found an association between formaldehyde exposure and NPC. The one study conducted by the National Cancer Institute on 25,000 workers in 10 different plants that used or manufactured formaldehyde reported 6 cases of NPC in one of the plants, but upon reanalysis of the data, the NPC cases were attributed to exposures to other known risk factors.12
Is there a link between formaldehyde and asthma?
Numerous government agencies and expert scientific bodies have concluded that the scientific evidence does not support an association between asthma and formaldehyde exposures. The WHO concluded that “[t]here is no evidence indicating an increased sensitivity to sensory irritation to formaldehyde among people often regarded as susceptible (asthmatics, children and older people).”13 A National Academy of Sciences report summarized the available controlled clinical studies, evaluating whether formaldehyde causes irritation in asthmatic and non-asthmatic people, and found no differences in sensitivity between the two groups (NAS 2004, NRC 2007): “. . . asthmatic individuals exposed to airborne formaldehyde at exposure concentrations at or below 3 parts per million do not appear to be at greater risk of suffering airway dysfunction than non-asthmatic individuals.”14
Can people experience health issues from building materials produced with formaldehyde?
Through many years of voluntary stewardship efforts and as a result of the California regulation, formaldehyde resin producers and wood panel manufacturers are now delivering products that emit at, or near, naturally occurring background levels from wood itself. As required by TSCA, EPA has established national emission limits based on California’s airborne toxics control measure to control formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.
Is there a more effective alternative to formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is perhaps best known for its preservatives and anti-bacterial properties, but formaldehyde-based chemistry is used to make a wide range of products. For example, the wood-based panel industry relies on formaldehyde-based resins for composite wood products. Few, if any, compounds can replace formaldehyde chemistry in creating high-quality resins without compromising quality and performance, or making the final products more expensive. While formaldehyde is an essential building block in a diverse range of wood products, its end use is primarily in a converted form. That means that virtually all of the formaldehyde is consumed in making the final product.
- CosmeticsInfo.org (Personal Care Products Council) : https://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/hbi/formaldehyde-information/
- FDA: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/nail-care-products#forma
- OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1048
- Govinfo.org: https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/CFR-2010-title24-vol5/CFR-2010-title24-vol5-part3280
- EPA: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq
- Consumer Product Safety Commission: https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/121919/AN%20UPDATE%20ON%20FORMALDEHYDE%20final%200113.pdf
- California Air Resources Board: https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/composite-wood-products-program
- National Cancer Institute: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp111.pdf
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK138711/
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7839796/
- Taylor & Francis Online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/10408444.2011.573467?scroll=top&needAccess=true
- Sage Journals (National Library of Medicine): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1559325817691159
- The National Academies Press: https://www.nap.edu/read/11170/chapter/7