Smarter Living: Chemical Index
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen used in many consumer products and building materials.
What Is It?
Formaldehyde is a volatile organic chemical (VOC) meaning that products containing formaldehyde can give off formaldehyde vapors for a long time. Its presence as an indoor air pollutant is largely because of its use in building materials, carpeting and furniture. Formaldehyde is used in many common household items, including plywood, furniture, composite or pressed wood products, wallpaper, glues, antiseptics, cosmetics and nail polish.
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 iin the atmosphere to create carbon monoxide, contributing to smog formation.
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. Short term effects of exposure to formaldehyde vapors include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, as well as nausea and headaches. Research also shows a link between exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde and an increase in a child’s risk of getting asthma.
To minimize formaldehyde exposure at home:
- 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, and
- Be sure that areas where you are using products containing formaldehyde are well ventilated.
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 which 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. Let your legislators know you want swift passage of this critically important bill. Click here to learn more.
NRDC's factsheet on formaldehyde.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxicological Profile for Formaldehyde. July 1999.
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.
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 12/27/2011