Formaldehyde in Your Home
What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical with a strong pickle-like odor that is commonly used in many manufacturing processes. It easily becomes a gas at room temperature, which makes it part of a larger group of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When an item gives off formaldehyde, it is released into the air through a process called off-gassing.
Where is formaldehyde found?
Formaldehyde is a chemical used in the production of adhesives, bonding agents and solvents. For this reason, it is commonly found in a variety of consumer products including:
- Pressed-wood products (plywood, particle board, paneling)
- Foam insulation
- Wallpaper and paints
- Some synthetic fabrics (example: permanent press)
- Some cosmetics and personal products
Formaldehyde is also a byproduct of combustion. When burning natural gas, kerosene, gasoline, wood, or tobacco, formaldehyde is produced. Automobile exhaust is a common source of formaldehyde in our environment. Tobacco smoking in the home is another source of the chemical in the indoor environment.
What are the health effects?
Exposure to formaldehyde may cause health effects in some individuals. The severity of symptoms depends upon the concentration (how much) and duration (how long) of formaldehyde exposure. Additionally, some people are more sensitive to chemicals such as formaldehyde and may experience symptoms earlier than others.
Short-term exposure may result in immediate symptoms including:
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
- Dizziness and nausea
Long-term exposure to formaldehyde may cause some types of cancer.
Is the use of formaldehyde banned?
No. Formaldehyde is still used in many consumer products. Minnesota Statute 325F.181 requires that all plywood and particle board used as building materials comply with federal standards that limit the amount of formaldehyde that can be released. Minnesota law also requires that there is a written warning attached to certain building materials made with urea formaldehyde. These requirements have been in effect since 1985.
While not directly related to air concentrations of formaldehyde, Minnesota Statute 325F.176-178 bans the use of formaldehyde in products intended for children. As of August 1, 2015, manufacturers and retailers cannot sell children’s products that intentionally contain formaldehyde.
How can I reduce formaldehyde levels in my home?
The best way to reduce your exposure is to avoid products that contain formaldehyde, and to not allow cigarette smoking in your home. Look for products that are labeled as 'no' or 'low’ VOC or formaldehyde. When purchasing pressed wood products for your home, look for those that are labeled as compliant with ANSI or California Air Resources Board Air Toxics Control Measure (CARB- ACTM) standards.
When purchasing products that may contain formaldehyde, methods to lower your exposure include:
- Allow products to off-gas: Remove the packaging from products and allow them to air out before bringing them into your house. Consider asking the manufacturer or store to leave the product unsealed in their warehouse for a few days before delivery. You may also consider purchasing a floor model where chemicals have already off-gassed.
- Ventilate your home: Increase the supply of fresh air to lower the concentration of formaldehyde. This can be done by opening windows, using fans or bringing in fresh air through a central ventilation system (such as a furnace air exchanger).
- Control the heat and humidity: Lower the temperature and humidity in the home through air conditioning and dehumidification. The amount of formaldehyde released goes up with increases in air temperature and humidity.
To minimize exposure to combustion by-products, including formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, ensure that combustion sources are properly maintained and vented outdoors. Avoid smoking indoors.
How can I measure the level of formaldehyde?
If you are having formaldehyde-related symptoms, it is important to examine your environment before making the decision to test. Air testing can be expensive and the results can be difficult to interpret because most homes contain products and other sources of formaldehyde. Ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- Have you made changes to your home? For example, have you installed new pressed wood materials such as new cabinets, flooring, or furniture? Have you applied coatings or finishing products to floors or other surfaces?
- Do you have combustion powered appliances that do not vent to the exterior of the home?
- Do you or others smoke in the home?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might be exposed to formaldehyde. The best course of action is to remove the source of the chemical from your environment. If you choose to test your air, there are a couple of ways to do so:
- Hire an indoor air quality (IAQ) consultant: While this is the most costly option, hiring a consultant provides you with a variety of testing methods that are not easily available to consumers. In addition, consultants can help you interpret your results.
- Order a test kit: You can search for “formaldehyde test kit” on the Internet or call an environmental testing laboratory for an at-home kit to measure your formaldehyde levels. It is important to follow the kit instructions to obtain accurate results.
What is an acceptable level of formaldehyde?
Indoor levels should be as low as possible, assuming that you cannot get indoor levels below background (outdoor levels). In Minnesota, outdoor levels of formaldehyde average about 2.0 ppb. According to research from the California Environmental Protection Agency (2004), levels of formaldehyde in conventional homes average about 20 ppb, while levels in manufactured homes the average is about 40 ppb.