Formaldehyde is a chemical that is released into the air as a pungent gas. It has a number of useful properties. For example, it is a good preservative and makes an excellent adhesive. Therefore, it is widely used in the building and furnishings industries. It is also found in small amounts in some textiles as an anti-wrinkle agent.
Particleboard is the major contributor of formaldehyde to the home environment. Used as an adhesive, urea formaldehyde, which can break down, releases the chemical into the environment. Some particleboard is now manufactured with reduced formaldehyde. Other sources include interior plywood, veneered or laminated furniture and cabinets, some furniture and floor finishes, paneling, permanent press fabrics, combustion by-products and cosmetics.
Formaldehyde is a strong irritant that causes watery eyes and in low doses, causes burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat. Wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rashes, headaches, loss of coordination and nausea are other symptoms sometimes associated with formaldehyde. Larger doses can cause asthma episodes as well as damage to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but there is limited evidence that it causes cancer in humans.
How can you detect if your home has significant concentrations of formaldehyde? You may be able to detect it by its odor. Also, environmental testing firms, listed in the yellow pages of the phone directory, should be able to test for formaldehyde levels. There are also do-it-yourself test kits available. However, there is some question about their accuracy.
Resource: Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Homes, EPA 402-K-98-002, June 2003.