PPM Technology

Embalmers risk dangerous exposure to Formaldehyde


Courtesy of PPM Technology

Embalmers can be at risk of dangerous exposure to Formaldehyde.


Formaldehyde is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent odour. It's widely used in many industries and causes severe health issues if used inappropriately.


Health Effects

Formaldehyde is highly toxic to humans, regardless of method of intake. Even very short-term exposure to formaldehyde irritates the eyes causing pain, redness, blurred vision and severe eye watering. It can irritate the nose and throat causing sneezing, soreness, coughing, shortness of breath, and can also lead to headaches and nausea.


Exposure to elevated levels can lead to accumulation of fluid in the lung (pulmonary oedema). A large exposure to formaldehyde is converted to formic acid in the body, leading to a rise in blood acidity, rapid-shallow breathing, hypothermia, and coma or death.


Long-term exposure causes chronically impaired lung function, skin hardening, swelling and flaking, dermatitis, allergic eczema, and cancer.


Formaldehyde has also been shown to cause sleep disturbance, impaired memory, reduced concentration, nausea and menstrual irregularity.


It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, including asthmatics, may have hyper reactive airways, which may make them more susceptible to formaldehyde effects. 


If exposed to air contaminated with formaldehyde, the first effect is irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. The related symptoms are tingling, redness or burning of the nose and throat, nasal discharge and watery eyes. These symptoms are generally negligible to slight for exposures in the order of 0.75 to 1 ppm. They can become bothersome and even intolerable at higher concentrations mainly when they exceed 2 to 3 ppm.


A known cause of cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation, has designated formaldehyde as a known cause of several types of throat and nasal cancer.


On 10 June 2011, the US National Toxicology Program has described formaldehyde as 'known to be a human carcinogen'. The report prepared for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), contained warnings from scientists that people with higher exposure to formaldehyde were more at risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia and other forms of cancers.


A highly reactive, flammable gas.

Formaldehyde is a highly reactive, flammable gas and can form explosive mixtures in air. It presents a fire hazard when exposed to flame or heat. Formaldehyde solutions can be flammable when formaldehyde or methanol concentrations are high. Formaldehyde is incompatible with many chemicals and can react, sometimes violently, with some chemicals, including strong oxidisers (e.g. bleach) and acids.



Formaldehyde used for embalming.

Embalmers are at risk of experiencing health effects from formaldehyde.  It is present as a dissolved gas, in concentrations from 37% to 54%, in the water-based solution called formalin. Formaldehyde solutions readily give off formaldehyde gas, which has a pungent odour.

The sources of formaldehyde emissions are the body to be treated and the device by which the formaldehyde solution is injected. In other words, the hazardous tasks are the preparation of the solution and the embalming process.

A report by the Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) found Formaldehyde levels during embalming can be very high, up to 4 parts per million (ppm), with average levels greater than 0.5 ppm.

Factors affecting Formaldehyde emissions in embalming environment include:

·         The formaldehyde solution used: concentration and quantity.

·         The embalming step, its duration and the complexity of the case.

·        The body’s physical characteristics: condition, size, medical history, time since death.

·         The workload: the number of workstations and bodies treated simultaneously.

·          The type and efficiency of the ventilation.


Exposure levels

Various countries have established maximum permissible exposure levels for Formaldehyde in the workplace.


In the UK formaldehyde has been assigned a Maximum Exposure Limit (MEL) of 2 parts per million (ppm) approved by the Health and Safety Executive. The MEL for formaldehyde is hard to explain in the light of HSE's own toxicology review which found that eye irritation can be caused by exposure to levels as low as 0.01ppm, 200 times less than the MEL.  The Health Protection Agency (HPA) suggest a range between 0.08 – 2.5 can result in throat and upper respiratory tract irritation.


The UK control limits fail to take account of the fact that skin irritation can occur at levels well below the MEL and that many people will experience 'double exposure' by coming into contact with formaldehyde both at work and at home.


In the USA, OSHA has set a permissible exposure level of 0.75ppm. In Sweden and Germany the maximum permissible indoor level is 0.1ppm. Australia’s exposure standard is 1 ppm for 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA), and 2 ppm for short-term exposure limit (STEL). Canada’s maximum exposure level is 2ppm.


Safety and Detection

In order to ensure embalmers and other employees are not exposed to dangerous levels of Formaldehyde in the air, it is advised to detect and monitor levels using a suitable detection instrument. Effective ventilation is also an essential workplace control measure for embalmers.


' Overexposure to airborne formaldehyde is dangerous to health, but the risks can be substantially reduced if levels are regularly measured and monitored;” said PPM Technology's Managing Director John B Jones.

Please visit www.ppm-technology.com for more information.

Customer comments

  1. By Julia Gerke on

    A Formaldehyde meter seems very important in this profession - as is a portable air purifier with activated carbon to actually remove formaldehyde from the air. Check out Electrocorp's air cleaners designed for Funeral Homes and Embalming: http://www.electrocorp.net/funeral_homes_and_embalming.php