Formaldehyde | Uses, Benefits, and Chemical Safety Facts

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a simple chemical compound made of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. All life forms – bacteria, plants, fish, animals and humans – naturally produce formaldehyde as part of cell metabolism.

Formaldehyde is perhaps best known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties, but formaldehyde-based chemistry is used to make a wide range of value-added products. Formaldehyde is one of the most well-studied and well-understood compounds in commerce.

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.

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 extremely 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 would otherwise be burned or disposed of in a landfill.

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 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.

Automobiles

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.

Safety Information

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 Exposure

Studies show that formaldehyde does not accumulate in people or animals because it is quickly broken down by the body’s natural metabolic processes. In the environment, formaldehyde is quickly 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Three agencies – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 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. And in 2010, Congress, at industry’s urging, enacted legislation mandating a national emission standard for composite wood products.

Answering Questions

What is formaldehyde?

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. However, little, if any, formaldehyde remains in the final products that consumers use.

Is consumer exposure to formaldehyde something to be concerned about?

Formaldehyde is an extensively regulated material. Mandatory government regulations set standards to protect human health and the environment. These requirements allow for the safe production, storage, handling and use of this important building block chemical. In fact, formaldehyde is one of the most well studied compounds in commerce, and its risk profile has been well characterized. It metabolizes quickly in the body; it breaks down rapidly, is not persistent and does not accumulate in the environment. 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.

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 to inhaled formaldehyde. 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 a form of leukemia, because inhaled formaldehyde does not get past the nasal tissues (because it is quickly metabolized) to reach the bone marrow where blood diseases originate.

Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is a very rare form of cancer that was reported to be associated with exposure to formaldehyde in a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute on 25,000 workers in 10 different plants where formaldehyde was used or manufactured. Of the 10 or so total cases of NPC in four studies conducted in almost 60,000 industrial workers or embalmers with potential exposure to formaldehyde, six came from a single plant. It has now been reported that five of these six cases were likely due to the workers’ previous or post-employment exposures to other known risk factors for upper respiratory tract cancers.

Does the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2014 review of the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) listing of formaldehyde in the 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) – in which the NRC panel concurred with the NTP listing of formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen” – mean that formaldehyde in consumer products is harmful to human health?

No. The World Health Organization has indicated that normal human exposures to formaldehyde do not present a risk of cancer. And, formaldehyde has been thoroughly reviewed at the federal level and is subject to regulation in consumer products and in the workplace to control exposures and protect human health. With regard to the Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) itself has stated that “… listing in the report does not establish that such substances present risk to persons in their daily lives.”  The NRC Committee’s conclusions do not take exposure into consideration, and the results differ significantly from the conclusions and recommendations of a separate NRC Committee report from 2011 that reviewed similar data on formaldehyde.

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).” 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.”

Can people experience health issues from building materials produced with formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde levels in typical indoor environments are below 0.1 ppm – well below the threshold that triggers sensory irritation in most people. The federal government, following Congressional legislation, is currently finalizing a regulation that would nationalize emission limits set under California’s airborne toxics control measure to control formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. 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.