Formaldehyde: What You Should Know
Is there formaldehyde in your home? Probably there is. Yet it’s an organic compound that is well known as a health hazard, as well as being a known human carcinogen. Anyone doing green building and remodeling should wise up on the sources and effects of formaldehyde on human and other life.
If you have no idea what formaldehyde is, think of the liquid in the jars that animal specimens and body parts are traditionally kept in, in museums and laboratories. That’s a formaldehyde solution. One of the uses of formaldehyde is as a disinfectant – a biocide, by any other name. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic substance, but it’s widely used in manufacturing.
One of the most common sources of formaldehyde is pressed wood. MDF (medium density fiberboard) is common in our homes, and the worst formaldehyde emitter among the pressed wood products on the market. Formaldehyde is an ingredient of the glues used in pressed wood products. The principal culprits are urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins, although phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resins are also implicated, though deemed less dangerous.
Other sources of formaldehyde include foam insulation used in cavity walls in homes, though this foam insulation is now rarely used, as awareness of its toxicity has become apparent. Formaldehyde is also used in materials that are given a permanent press treatment (such as pleated drapes).
The health problems that formaldehyde can cause are well documented, and it has been bumped up over the years from a possible carcinogen to a known carcinogen. Occupational exposure to it led to increases in nasopharyngeal and nasal sinus cancers. It is also linked to leukemia, especially the kind known as myeloid leukemia.
These hazards are known from cases where people have been strongly exposed to formaldehyde. At lower exposures it still causes problems, including mucus membrane irritation. Though a link with asthma has not been proved, studies strongly suggest that it may be implicated in the development of childhood asthma. Quite simply, this is not a substance you want to be around. Smokers (and passive smokers) should be aware that it is a component of cigarette smoke.
In the home, particle board, paneling and MDF furniture are the things to look out for. In green building projects it makes both environmental and health sense to consider less toxic alternatives. If pressed wood products have to be used, the types made for exterior use are preferable, since these contain the less toxic and volatile P-F resins. Emissions of formaldehyde go up in humid conditions, so this is something to factor in if your green building project is in an area or a structure that endures steamy temperatures. Efficient coating of pressed woods can limit emissions but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so for a green home, it might be best to seek out more eco-friendly materials every time.