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Formaldehyde Is Everywhere, But Is It Dangerous?

Damien Hirst sheep in formaldehyde
Artist Damien Hirst is famous for his long-running series art of deceased animals (including shark, sheep and cows) that are preserved in formaldehyde. Shown here is a sheep from his 1994 "Away From the Flock" exhibition. Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

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In 2011, The New York Times ran an article titled, "Despite Risk, Embalmers Still Embrace Preservative." The preservative in question: formaldehyde. Despite links to exposure and certain cancers, the article reported undertakers insisted "nothing else preserves the body long enough so that it is presentable for public viewing and can be shipped."

Perhaps you're familiar with formaldehyde in this specific — if not morbid — context. If not, you surely remember it from biology class. It's that chemical used to preserve specimens. It has been for centuries, in fact. Dead animals (or organs) are injected with the chemical to stop deterioration and decay, and then they're submerged in a preservation fluid, typically ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.

But these are far from the only ways the chemical is used. Where else might you find formaldehyde? Try opening your medicine cabinet or scoping out the area under your kitchen sink.

Where Is Formaldehyde Found?

You may not know formaldehyde when you see it, but you'd probably know it by its smell. The colorless gas has a strong, suffocating aroma that some describe as pickle-like (but not in an appetizing way). The flammable chemical is widely used in a variety of home building products and as a preservative in medical laboratories, cosmetics — and yes, mortuaries. It's also a by-product of car combustion, but you might be surprised to know formaldehyde naturally occurs — albeit in small amounts — in most living organisms, including humans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says formaldehyde is present in just about all of our homes — especially those with smoking allowed. Also residents living in new-construction homes, or even those with new construction and/or new manufactured wood products (think: flooring and furniture) are also likely to be exposed to higher levels of the chemical.

A few of the most common places where formaldehyde is common include:

  • some manufactured wood products like furniture, laminate flooring, cabinets and more
  • permanent press fabrics, like those used for furniture, carpets and curtains
  • some household products like detergents, glues and some paints
  • certain cosmetics
  • cigarette smoke and other tobacco products
  • smoke from gas stoves and open fireplaces
  • smog
  • medicines and vitamins
  • preserved foods
  • fertilizers
  • certain electrical wiring

Is Formaldehyde Dangerous?

If you're wondering how formaldehyde can have such a toxic reputation and still be in so many everyday items, the answer is it's all in the quantity. Most people who are exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde present in home products don't experience any serious health complications. However, more sensitive people may not be able to tolerate those same low doses.

"Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat," says Kenneth T. Labbe, press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the EPA's toxic substances portal, groups that are more susceptible to these effects include the very young and very old, along with those who have asthma and other breathing problems.

The real risks of formaldehyde are associated with very high levels of the chemical, which has been linked to rare nose and throat cancers in workers in certain manufacturing facilities, power plants and a number of other industries.

"High levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers," Labbe says. "The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determined in 2011 that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen based on sufficient human and animal inhalation studies." Among the studies described on the EPA's integrated risk information system (IRIS) chemical assessment summary, one "observed significant excesses in lung and nasopharyngeal cancer deaths" and another found "statistically significant excesses in mortality from buccal cavity tumors [i.e. oral cancer] among formaldehyde exposed garment workers."

Some other types of employees who may be at risk for formaldehyde exposure include:

  • doctors
  • dentists
  • nurses
  • embalmers
  • veterinarians
  • clothing or furniture industry employees
  • pathologists
  • teachers and students who work in labs with preserved specimens

Reducing Exposure to Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde can enter the body through the air, through food and water, and through the skin. Luckily, there are some simple ways to mitigate exposure and minimize the risk for serious health complications

  • Don't smoke. There's a long list of reasons to quit cigarettes and all other forms of tobacco — here's another compelling one. Formaldehyde is a component in tobacco smoke, so lighting up in enclosed spaces can put you and anyone you live with at risk for excessive formaldehyde exposure.
  • Keep your house well ventilated. One way to reduce formaldehyde levels is just airing out your house. Open a few windows when possible and/or consider using a ventilation fan to circulate fresh air. This may be especially important if you have a lot of pressed wood furniture or flooring in your house.
  • Wash new garments. Whenever possible, launder brand new clothes and other fabrics known to have formaldehyde. A simple wash may help lower the amount of the chemical the fabrics release.
  • Maintain your fireplace. If you use your fireplace, be sure to maintain it properly to prevent smoke from getting into your home. Burn only well-seasoned wood, and have your flue and chimney cleaned annually.
  • Use low- or no-VOC paints. The VOC means volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde is one of the most common VOCs. These low- or no-VOC paints are now available everywhere, and while they cost a few dollars more, they don't have that nasty interior paint smell, so that's a plus, too.

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