Smarter Living: Chemical Index

Formaldehyde (pronounced "for `mal de hide") is a chemical that is known to cause cancer (a carcinogen) used in many consumer products and building materials.

Formaldehyde is classified as a "known human carcinogen" by the National Toxicology Program, a designation upheld by the National Research Council in 2014.

What is it and how can I recognize it?

A gas. Formaldehyde is a volatile organic chemical (VOC) meaning that products containing formaldehyde can give off vapors for a long time. It is a colorless, highly toxic, and flammable gas at room temperature. It has a pungent, irritating, suffocating odor that is detectable at low concentrations.

Where is it found?

Household products. Widespread use has made it known as a widespread indoor air pollutant. Formaldehyde is popular because of its low cost and is commonly used in building materials and in the production of many household products.

  • Building materials: pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; paper product coatings (such as wallpaper); and certain insulation materials
  • Fabrics: permanent-press fabrics
  • Personal care and beauty products: hair straightening treatments, antiseptics, cosmetics, and nail polish

Formaldehyde has been recognized as a toxic substance in hair straightening products used in salons. A 2013 study conducted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board and backed by the FDA stated that "...hair smoothing products containing formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe." The heat generated when using straightening irons and blow-dryers can cause the release of formaldehyde.

Produced from burning materials. Formaldehyde is also produced during combustion and can be found as an outdoor air contaminant from sources such as forest fires, power plants, automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke. Formaldehyde can react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to create carbon monoxide, contributing to smog formation.

How does it enter my body, and what are the health effects?

Breathing. The most common way that formaldehyde enters the body is by breathing it in (inhalation). This usually occurs in indoor environments where the gas has been released from formaldehyde-containing products.

Short term effects of exposure to formaldehyde vapors include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, as well as nausea and headaches. People that have previously been exposed to formaldehyde can become hypersensitive to its effects and may not even be aware of the smell before it's too late.

Does it cause cancer, and which types?

Yes. The effects from long-term exposure to formaldehyde include cancer of the nasal passages and throat, leukemia and potentially other cancers of the respiratory tract. According to a 2011 report by the National Toxicology Program, formaldehyde is classified as "known to be a human carcinogen." It has a causal relationship to higher risks of nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia.

Research also shows a link between exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde and an increase in a child's risk of getting asthma.

How do I reduce my exposure?

To minimize formaldehyde exposure at home:

  • Ventilation. When using products containing formaldehyde, increase air flow in the affected area by opening windows and doors. Make sure any wood furniture or fixtures that use particleboard are laminated or otherwise coated.
  • Choose exterior-grade rather than interior-grade pressed wood products for remodeling.

Take Action

Capitol Hill. Congress, in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, defined formaldehyde as a toxic air pollutant subject to regulatory action and it is considered by U.S. EPA as one of the major toxic constituents of smog. However, there are no federal laws banning or regulating the use of formaldehyde in consumer products and very few safety standards have been implemented to limit use.

A number of states have taken action to tighten up regulation of formaldehyde, and the market is responding to consumer concerns about the health effects from exposure. Formaldehyde-free insulation and wood products are now readily available, and some companies are marketing formaldehyde-free clothing, personal care products and baby items.

But consumer protection should not be left to successful retailer campaigns. Congress must act so that unsafe chemicals like formaldehyde are removed from the market and new chemicals are tested for safety before they are put into use. Legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was introduced in April 2010.

Learn More

NRDC's factsheet on formaldehyde.

NRDC: Protecting People From Unsafe Chemicals

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxicological Profile for Formaldehyde. July 1999.

Boyer, IJ, et al. Amended safety assessment of formaldehyde and methylene glycol as used in cosmetics. Int J Toxicol. 2013 Nov-Dec;32(6 Suppl):5S-32S.

California Air Resources Board. Final Regulation Order, 2008. Airborne Toxic Control Measure To Reduce Formaldehyde Emissions From Composite Wood Products.

Gordon SM, et al, 1999. Residential environmental measurements in the National Human Exposure Assessment Survey (NHEXAS) pilot study in Arizona: preliminary results for pesticides and VOCs. J Expo Anal Environ Epidemiol 9: 456-470.

International Agency for Research on Cancer, Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 88, 2006 and volume 100, 2009.

National Research Council. Review of the Formaldehyde Assessment in the National Toxicology Program 12th Report on Carcinogens. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18948

National Toxicology Program, Report on Carcinogens (ROC) - 12th Edition. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/formaldehyde.pdf

Rumchev, K. B., et al. (2002). "Domestic exposure to formaldehyde significantly increases the risk of asthma in young children." Eur Respir J 20(2): 403-408.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Formaldehyde emission controls for certain wood products. 24 CFR 3282.308.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, TEACH Formaldehyde chemical summary. 2007.

last revised 9/25/2014

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