Health concerns and issues due to formaldehyde are increasing due to its wide use in building materials and household products
Agencies such as the EPA and the National Cancer Institute are stating that above certain levels of formaldehyde in the air (0.1 ppm or 100 ppb) individuals may experience adverse health effects. But how do we know the levels of formaldehyde in our environment?
When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 100 ppb, some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no reaction to the same level of exposure. In addition to the immediate symptoms, formaldehyde is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, known to cause cancer in humans, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
One of the complicating factors in formaldehyde investigations is the variety and number of sources. There are a surprising number of sources in various building materials, everyday products, and natural processes.
The largest source of formaldehyde in homes is from resins used in adhesives and binders in engineered wood products such as particleboard, plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF), and oriented strand board (OSB) as well as more wood finished products like engineered flooring. Other building products, such as insulation, glues and adhesives, and paints and coatings may also contain formaldehyde. There are also a variety of non-building products that contain formaldehyde such as:
- cleaning products
- textiles (e.g., permanent press fabrics)
- air fresheners
- pet care products
- bactericides and fungicides
Formaldehyde is also present in combustion processes, including tobacco and wood smoke and fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves, kerosene space heaters, and fireplaces.
In addition to the building and occupant sources found in commercial buildings, industrial and manufacturing facilities may generate formaldehyde as a byproduct of their processes or activities, especially in manufacturing of industrial chemicals.
Many of the sources of formaldehyde present in residential environments are also present in commercial environments since many of the building and occupant sources are the same. In addition, some commercial facilities may generate formaldehyde in other activities or use in aqueous (water-based) solution called formalin as a disinfectant and preservative.
Formaldehyde is produced naturally in most living systems, including humans, as part of an oxidative metabolism. It is also produced during decay processes, as a byproduct of combustion, and during photochemical oxidation of hydrocarbons in the air (i.e., smog formation). These environmental sources result in outdoor concentrations of formaldehyde of a few ng/L in remote locations and up to approximately 20 ng/L (16 ppb) in urban locations.
Formaldehyde (CAS 50-0-0) is the smallest of the aldehydes with a chemical formula of CH2O. It is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that readily evaporates into the air. Indoor Air Quality Associates uses the acetylacetone (acac) or Hantzsch synthesis method to determine formaldehyde concentrations. This method involves the cyclization of 2,4-pentanedione (acac), ammonium acetate, and formaldehyde to form the dihydropyridine 3,5-diacetyl-1,4-dihydrolutidine (DDL) which is quantified by its fluorescence at 510 nm. This method has been correlated or is compliant with the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) § 93120, European DIN Standard EN-717 and ASTM methods D-5582 and E-1333. It has also been compared with DNPH testing used in NIOSH 2016 and found to be in good agreement.