What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring colourless chemical composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Though it can’t be seen, it has a distinct odour, making it easily identifiable. Naturally occurring formaldehyde can be found in humans, animals, plants, fruit, vegetables, meats and beverages.

Formaldehyde is also a byproduct of the oxidisation and combustion of certain products and is therefore released from forest fires, car exhausts and tobacco smoke. Though naturally occurring, formaldehyde does not accumulate within the environment. It is broken down very quickly by sunlight or bacteria found in soil. Formaldehyde found within the body is also quickly broken down by our metabolic processes.

What is formaldehyde used for?

Formaldehyde used for industrial purposes is manufactured but is identical to that found naturally occurring in the environment. The industrial applications of formaldehyde include construction materials, automotive and aircraft components, healthcare and cosmetic products, and clothing. It can be used in many products as an industrial disinfectant and/or as a preservative.

Formaldehyde is an ingredient in the manufacture of glues used in the production of a multitude of different household products including furniture, flooring, cabinets and is an essential raw material for inks used for publications and photocopiers. It is also found in a number of different car components such as the transmission, break pads, and door panels. Formaldehyde is also used in textiles to help bind dyes and make clothes more wrinkle resistant.

If formaldehyde is naturally occurring why do we manufacture it?

Formaldehyde is required for industrial processes at much higher volumes than can be found occurring naturally.

How is formaldehyde made?

In Industrial processes formaldehyde is produced by the reaction of methanol with oxygen. Please see our Science Section for more information

How big is the formaldehyde industry?

In Europe, over 2 million tonnes of formaldehyde are produced each year, creating over 30,000 direct jobs and an additional 100,000 indirect jobs. Downstream industries which rely on industrial formaldehyde, such as the wood panels and furniture industry employ more than 5 million people across Europe with more jobs created by other downstream users of formaldehyde such as the automotive and textiles industries.

Is formaldehyde safe?

Like most chemicals, very high concentrations of formaldehyde can be harmful, however its natural presence in our bodies at low levels means that we have the right metabolic process to ensure that it is broken down quickly and does not build up in the body and is harmless.

Formaldehyde is all around us in the natural environment, and therefore trace amounts are released into the atmosphere as gas vapour. National Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) ranging from 0.3-0.5ppm have been set however, current studies of indoor air in homes and offices has shown formaldehyde levels of 0.1ppm. This is a very small amount especially when compared to the level of formaldehyde found in a pear, for example, which can contain in the region of 40-60 mg/kg.

Formaldehyde at high concentrations of over 1ppm can cause some skin, eye or nose irritation in humans, however exposure to such levels is very rare. Studies on human volunteers at the University of Heidelberg showed no objective signs of irritation at exposure to concentrations of 0.3 ppm with peaks of 0.6 ppm or 0.5 ppm continuously.

What are the exposure limits?

Trace amounts of formaldehyde can be found in a variety of everyday objects all around us, however the amounts are so small that they are hard to detect. To ensure that levels are kept to a minimum national Occupational Exposure Limits (OEL) have been established. These regulations are strictly adhered to across Europe minimising any potential risk. The OEL levels in Europe range from 0.3 to 0.5 ppm.

For more information on the OEL limit in your country please contact the Formacare Secretariat or your national labour inspectorate. For enquiries in North America, please contact the Formaldehyde Council, Inc.

How is formaldehyde classified?

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) carried out a review in 2004 of a number of studies that looked at health and illness patterns for people exposed to formaldehyde up to more than 60 years ago. Of these studies, one looked at ten different manufacturing plants where formaldehyde was used. Of the ten sites 1 showed above average (9 out of 50,000) cases of the very rare nasopharyngeal cancer. The average for people who aren’t exposed to formaldehyde is 7 out of 50,000. Based on this data the IARC recommended classification of formaldehyde from group 2A -“probably carcinogenic to humans” to group 1 – “carcinogenic to humans”. This recommendation is not legally binding and no recommendations were made regarding regulation or legislation.

Since that recommendation, additional investigations into the study showing a slightly higher incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer and a critique were published, scientifically challenging the statistical method used.

Under European Union standards formaldehyde is currently classified as a category 3 chemical – “weak level carcinogenic hazard – which is defined as one with “limited evidence of carcinogenic effect”. This is only in connection to the very rare occurrence of nasopharyngeal cancer; there is no evidence to suggest that formaldehyde causes any other form of cancer.

Formaldehyde, like a multitude of other substances, is currently under review by the European Commission’s Technical Committee on Classification and Labelling. This will take into consideration a proposal put forward by France for reclassification of formaldehyde, as well as any new scientific studies into the effects of formaldehyde.

The formaldehyde industry is well aware of the potential risk from over exposure and misuse of its products and has in place strict procedures and regulations to ensure the safe and secure use of its product. To this end, we continue to invest in studies to look into the potential impact on humans and provide all downstream users with regular updates regarding safe handling procedures.

What are the safety standards?

The chemicals industry as a whole is aware of the role it plays in ensuring the safe use and application of all of its chemicals. As such, we fully support all regulations and legislation that is put in place to protect both consumers and downstream users. When applying best practice limits to formaldehyde, emissions from wooden panel boards comprise the European E1 standards of under 0.1 ppm.

Constantly improving production methods mean that indoor air levels of formaldehyde have decreased significantly with studies showing that indoor air levels of formaldehyde in homes and offices are nowadays at a safe level of below 0.1 ppm.

Does formaldehyde cause cancer?

There have been numerous studies into the potential carcinogenic effects of formaldehyde; none have shown conclusive evidence to suggest that exposure to formaldehyde causes cancer. However, as with most substances,  prolonged exposure to very high concentrations of formaldehyde can have adverse health effects.

Scientific studies into the effects of formaldehyde on animals showed that rats exposed to very high concentrations such as 6 and 15ppm showed some indications of developing carcinogenic cells in the upper respiratory tract. However, no such evidence was found in hamsters or mice.

The main responsibility of formacare and its member companies is to ensure the safety of our workers and consumers. Thus, member companies constantly evaluate and update workplace procedures to ensure the safety of their employees. As an industry we take our commitment to our end users very seriously and we have initiated several research programs at both European and American institutes and universities to gain a better idea of the risks related to formaldehyde. These studies are dealing with epidemiology, sensory irritation, genotoxicity and mutagenicity.