The Lowdown on Formaldehyde

Editor’s Note: We continue our look at common chemicals used in household cleaning products and their impact on health, home and environment.

When you think of formaldehyde, you probably reflect back to your school days from biology class and that poor little frog awaiting your dissection. Formaldehyde was used to preserve this little creature for your learning purpose.

In its basic form, formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong odor. Very small amounts are found naturally in the human body. It’s classified as a volatile organic compound and is regulated by different U.S. government agencies depending on its use.

Formaldehyde is used for several purposes and is a popular chemical because of its relatively low cost. Your kitchen cabinets and other pressed wood products were probably made with it. The carpet you walk on was probably made with it. It’s is also found in plastics, paper products, fertilizer, dyes, textiles, pesticides, cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwashes, deodorant, and in some baby products such as diaper wipes. It’s also formed in the environment during the burning of fuels or household waste.

Formaldehyde is also a common ingredient in household cleaning products, although it’s not easily identifiable on the back of the bottle since manufacturers use different synonyms. Check the ingredient list on your product label and see if any of these are present: formalin, oxomethane formalin, methanal, formic aldehyde, oxymethyline, urea, dioxane, methylaldehyde, methylene oxide, morbicid acid and phenol formaldehyde, just to name a few. From laundry detergents, disinfectants, furniture polish, air fresheners and more, formaldehyde is used in several types of household cleaning products.

Exposure Impacts

Low level exposure can cause watery eyes, burning sensation in the eyes and throat, fatigue, and skin rash. Nausea, difficulty breathing, and asthma attacks can occur at higher concentrations (above 0.1 parts per million). It has also been known to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen.

Exposure to formaldehyde is hard to avoid since it’s contained in so many different types of products and materials, but proper indoor air ventilation is key to reduce your risk. Indoor air in the home has five times higher toxic chemical concentrations than outdoor air, according to the EPA.

Materials to build a home or items such as new cabinets and other wood products should be allowed to “gas out” in a garage or outdoors before installation. If this can’t be done, keep indoor air temperature and humidity at a lower level. Warm temperatures and high humidity increase the amount of gas released into the air.

Open windows when using household cleaning products, avoid mixing different cleaners together, and limit your daily use of household cleaning products containing formaldehyde.

Environmental Impacts

Formaldehyde is biodegradable in water and air, although the time it takes to “gas off” or break down varies. The gas breaks down in sunlight during the day into carbon monoxide and formic acid. It does not build up in plants and animals. Formaldehyde’s main impact is on indoor air quality.

Household cleaning products made with formaldehyde contain other chemicals that do negatively impact our waterways. It’s best to select natural alternative cleaning products such as those made from soy, which are biodegradable and help other oils and chemicals break down in waterways.

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