Formaldehyde, even more ubiquitous and intrusive than warrantless wiretaps, seems to be almost everywhere. In the construction and building industry, urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are commonly used as an adhesive in making many pressed wood products such as plywood, paneling, fiberboard, and particle board. These formaldehyde-emitting pressed woods are widely used in the construction of homes from the sub-floor to rafters, from cabinet veneers to wall paneling, from clothes dressers to kitchen counter tops. To improve energy efficiency, spray-on urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) is sometimes used in walls. Formaldehyde can also be found as a preservative in paints and also in furniture woods, upholstery fabrics and draperies.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that formaldehyde is one of the contributors to “sick building syndrome” and that the best solution is to increase ventilation until the building materials have off-gassed to a level that can be tolerated. “Sick building syndrome” (also called “Tight Building Syndrome” or “Indoor Air Pollution”) is a collection of ills that describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. When the building materials are new, high indoor temperatures or humidity can cause an increased release of formaldehyde to be off-gassed. These emissions will decrease over time as the formaldehyde dissipates into the environment but it can take six to twelve months.
Besides the building and construction industry, formaldehyde can be found in almost every closet and drawer in a conventional home in some form:
- Personal care products – cosmetics, fingernail polishes and hardeners, antiperspirants, bubble bath, bath oils, shampoos, creams, mouthwashes, deodorants and even toothpastes;
- Cleaning products and supplies – household cleaners, disinfectants, polishes;
- Paper products – formaldehyde resins are used to improve the water resistance, grease resistance, shrink resistance, and wet-strength properties of some paper products such as paper towels, napkins and coated paper products;
- Home furnishings – carpet backings and foam in cushions;
- Food products – used as a preservative in some foods and in the manufacturing of sugar;
- Medicines – used as a preservative in some vaccines given to children and other pharmaceuticals including wart remedies, anhidrotics, medicated creams, orthopaedic casts and root canal preparation disinfectant (read more about dentistry & sargenti paste here);
- In the garden and garage where formaldehyde can be used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, petroleum, paints, primers and paint-stripping agents;
- On the farm, formaldehyde has been used as a fumigant, preventative for mildew in wheat and rot in oats, a germicide and fungicide for plants, an insecticide, and in the manufacture of slow-release fertilizers.
Of course, the level of formaldehyde in individual products is regulated so it doesn’t exceed acceptable levels, but each country has its own manufacturing standards for acceptable levels for formaldehyde resins. The “low level” of acceptable formaldehyde in Japan is 75 ppm (parts per million parts of air), whereas the U.S. “low level” of acceptable formaldehyde is near 300 ppm. Once again, consumer protection from potentially dangerous and toxic chemicals is much less in the U.S. than in many other G7 countries. Sensitivities to formaldehyde, like other toxins, do build up over time and can eventually become a serious health concern.
Formaldehyde can also be produced by burning carbon-based materials such as wood in fireplaces and forest fires, tobacco in cigarettes and cigars, and gasoline in automobile engines. Formaldehyde is also produced naturally in very small and diluted quantities by the action of sunlight and oxygen breaking down atmospheric methane and other hydrocarbons.
Oh, yes … one of the most prevalent causes of formaldehyde exposure is from conventional, chemical-laced clothing where formaldehyde is often used in fabric finishes and conventional synthetic color-fast dyes. Garment manufacturers in warm, tropical regions such as Asia sometimes add formaldehyde to fabric finishes to prevent mildew in the clothing before it arrives on chain store shelves at your local mall.
According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins. Women's clothing also includes lingerie and undergarments. Drs. Rao, Shenoy, Davis and Nayak reported on a study titled “Detection of Formaldehyde in Textiles By Chromotropic Acid Method” in which they randomly tested twenty fabrics found in a local fabric store in India for traces of formaldehyde. Eleven of the twenty fabrics tested positive for formaldehyde. Even more interesting was that after washing the fabrics twice, there was no significant reduction in the degree of formaldehyde found in the clothing. This suggests that it takes multiple washings with dryings and airings in between – and not just one or two – to significantly reduce the amount of formaldehyde found in clothing. Washing new clothing treated with formaldehyde resin may reduce the level of free formaldehyde but it is not sufficient to prevent a reaction in someone already sensitive to formaldehyde. Textile manufacturers are serious when they make these easy care finishes permanent and they won’t come out quickly or easily.
Fabrics are treated with urea-formaldehyde resins to give them all sorts of easy care properties such as:
- Permanent press / durable press
- Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink proof wool)
- Waterproofing and stain resistance (especially for suede and chamois)
- Perspiration proof
- Moth proof
- Mildew resistant
But easy care can come at a tough price.
Health Consequences of Exposure to Formaldehyde: Long known as the Embalmer’s Friend for its uses in funeral homes and high school biology labs, formaldehyde can also have serious effects on the living depending upon the intensity and length of the exposure to formaldehyde and the sensitivity of the individual to the chemical. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is easily absorbed through the skin when using personal care products containing formaldehyde such as shampoos, bubble baths, and cosmetics.
Hazards of Light Exposure: Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong smelling gas that can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, bronchospasm and coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), rhinitis, dyspnea, asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, general fatigue, skin rashes and allergic reactions, according to the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
Hazards of Heavy Exposure: A single, high level of exposure to formaldehyde fumes can create a tightening in the chest, irregular heartbeat, severe headache, irritability, impairment of dexterity, and loss of equilibrium. Higher exposures can cause pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), inflammation of the lungs and lower respiratory tract resulting in swelling of the throat and inflammation of the windpipe and bronchi, and possibly even death.
Long term exposure can adversely affect the central nervous system and cause frequent strong headaches, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and continued impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium.
Medical studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with nasal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and possibly with leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have found formaldehyde to be a probably human carcinogen and workers with high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde to be at an increased risk for leukemia and brain cancer. Another study of 14,014 textile workers performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also found an association between the duration of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.
Formaldehyde and Children’s Health: Children may be more susceptible than adults to the respiratory effects of formaldehyde because children have a greater lung surface area to body weight ratio causing them to absorb more formaldehyde from contaminated air relative to their body weight. Children in homes and buildings with high levels of formaldehyde are at even additional risk because formaldehyde is slightly heavier than air so it settles closer to the floor. Because children are shorter, they tend to be exposed to slightly higher levels of formaldehyde than adults. Also, the immune system in children continues to develop after birth, and thus, children may be more susceptible to certain chemicals such as formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde & Chemical Sensitivities: Formaldehyde is one of about two dozens chemical toxins commonly found in homes and wardrobes that are believed by doctors to contribute to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). Chemical sensitivities are becoming a growing health problem in the U.S. as the persistent exposure to harsh and toxic chemicals grows. One of the signs of increasing chemical sensitivities is the rise of contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde resins and other chemicals used in textile finishes.
Contact dermatitis from clothing can be recognized by a chronic and recurring rash that appears on parts of the body where clothing fits tight. Because heat and humidity increase the emissions from formaldehyde resins, the American Contact Dermatitis Society warns that areas around waistbands, collars, underarms, the upper back, inner thighs, and back of knees are more prone to chemical-induced skin rashes. Wearing a cap or hat treated with formaldehyde can cause a rash on the forehead or scalp around the hat band. More women than men are affected by contact clothing dermatitis.
Repeated exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde can create a condition called “sensitization” where the individual becomes very sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde and then even low levels of formaldehyde can cause an “allergic” reaction.
Formaldehyde Aliases: Formaldehyde, first synthesized by the Russian chemist Aleksandr Butlerov in 1859, is one of the world’s most common industrial chemicals. In 1995, 8.1 billion pounds of formaldehyde were produced in the U.S. alone making it the 24th most abundantly produced industrial chemical. Formaldehyde belongs to the large family of chemical compounds known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) because their volatile nature causes them to become a gas at normal room temperature.
- Formalin or formol
- Methanal, methylene oxide, oxymethyline, methyl aldehyde, or oxomethane
- Morbicid acid
- H2C0 or HCHO which are the chemical formula for formaldehyde
Also avoid formaldehyde-releasing preservatives such as:
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Diazolidinyl urea
What to Do? As much as possible, avoid coming into contact with formaldehyde by asking questions. If you are considering a new home, ask about building construction and materials. If you are buying new furniture, carpets or draperies, ask about what resins might have been used. If you are buying personal care products, read the ingredients label and check for all the aliases that formaldehyde can hide behind. If you are buying new clothes or bedding, buy natural fiber organic clothing. From a chemical perspective, recycled and used clothing is often healthier than new, chemical clothing. If you really, really must have that new synthetic disco outfit, avoid all easy care fabrics and finishes. Remember, it takes a long time and many washings to deplete most of the formaldehyde resins in those easy care finishes. That “permanent” is in “permanent press” for more than one reason.
Many types of leafy green house plants are also very good at removing free formaldehyde from indoor air. One of the most effective is the Boston Fern. "Green" is good.
Dress wisely, stay informed and enjoy.
Purely beautiful and healthy clothing