What is Formaldehyde?

  Formaldehyde  is an  important industrial
chemical used  to  make other chemicals,
building materials, and household products. It
is one of the  large  family of chemical
compounds called volatile organic compounds
or 'VOCs'. The term volatile means  that the
compounds vaporize, that is, become a gas, at
normal room  temperatures.  Formaldehyde
serves many purposes in products. It is used as
a part of:

  • the glue or adhesive in  pressed wood
    products (particleboard,  hardwood  ply-
    wood, and fiberboard);

  • preservatives in some paints, coatings,
    and cosmetics;

  • the coating that provides permanent press
    quality to fabrics and draperies;

  • the finish used to coat paper products; and

  • certain   insulation  materials   (urea-
    formaldehyde foam insulation).

  Formaldehyde  is released  into the air by
burning wood, kerosene  or natural  gas, by
automobiles, and by cigarettes. Formaldehyde
can off-gas from  materials made with  it.  It is
also a naturally occurring substance.

  The U.S. Consumer Safety Commission has
produced this booklet  to tell  you about
formaldehyde  found  in the indoor air.  This
booklet tells you where  you may come in
contact with formaldehyde, how it may affect
your health, and how you might reduce your
exposure to it.

Why Should You Be Concerned?

  Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling
gas. When present in the air at levels above 0.1
ppm (parts in a million parts of air),  it can cause
watery eyes, burning sensations  in the eyes,
nose  and throat, nausea,  coughing, chest
tightness, wheezing, skin  rashes,  and allergic
reactions. It also causes cancer in laboratory
animals and may cause cancer in  humans.

  Formaldehyde can affect people differently.
Some people are very  sensitive to formalde-
hyde while others may not have any noticeable
reaction to the same level.

  Persons have developed  allergic reactions
(allergic skin disease and hives)  to formalde-
hyde through  skin contact  with  solutions of
formaldehyde  or durable-press clothing
containing formaldehyde.  Others  have devel-
oped asthmatic reactions and skin rashes from
exposure to formaldehyde.

  You should understand that formaldehyde is
just one of several gases  present  indoors that
may cause illnesses. Many of these gases, as
well as colds and flu, cause similar symptoms.

 What Levels of Formaldehyde
 Are Normal?

   Formaldehyde is normally present  at low
 levels, usually less than 0.03 ppm, in both out-
 door and indoor air.  The outdoor air in rural
 areas  has lower concentrations while urban
 areas have higher concentrations. Residences
 or offices that contain products that release
 formaldehyde to the air can have formaldehyde
 levels of greater than 0.03 ppm. Products that
 may add formaldehyde to  the  air include
 particleboard used  as sub-flooring or shelving,
 fiberboard in cabinets and furniture, plywood
 wall  panels,  and urea-formaldehyde  as
 insulation. As  formaldehyde  levels increase,
 illness or discomfort is more likely to occur and
 may be more serious.

  Efforts have been made by both the govern-
 ment and  industry to reduce exposure to
 formaldehyde. CPSC voted to ban urea-formal-
 dehyde foam insulation. That ban  was over-
 turned in the courts, but these actions greatly
 reduced the residential  use of the product.
 CPSC, the Department of Housing and Urban
 Development, and  other federal agencies are
 working with the pressed wood  industry to
 further reduce the release of the chemical from
their products. However, it would be unrealistic
to expect to completely remove formaldehyde
from the air. Some persons who are  extremely
sensitive to formaldehyde may need to reduce
or stop using these products.

What Affects Formaldehyde Levels?

  Formaldehyde levels in the indoor air depend
mainly on what is releasing the formaldehyde
(the source), the temperature, the humidity, and
the air exchange rate (the amount of outdoor air
entering or leaving the indoor area). Increasing
the flow of outdoor air to the inside decreases
the formaldehyde levels. Decreasing this flow
of outdoor air by sealing the residence or office
increases the  formaldehyde level in  the in-
door air.

  As the temperature rises, more formaldehyde
comes off from the product. The reverse is also
true; less formaldehyde comes off at lower
temperature. Humidity also affects the release
of formaldehyde from the product. As humidity
rises more formaldehyde is released.

  The  formaldehyde levels in a residence
change with the  season and from day-to-day
and day-to-night.  Levels may be high on a hot
and  humid  day and  low on a cool, dry day.
Understanding these factors is important when
you  consider measuring  the levels  of

  Some  sources—such  as pressed  wood
products  containing  urea-formaldehyde glues,
urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, durable-
press fabrics,  and draperies—release more
formaldehyde  when  new. As they  age,  the
formaldehyde release decreases.

What are the Major Sources?

1. Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation: During
   the 1970s, many home owners installed this
   insulation to save  energy. Many  of these
   homes had  high  levels of  formaldehyde
   soon afterwards. Sale of urea formaldehyde
   foam insulation  has  largely stopped.
   Formaldehyde release  from this product
   decreases rapidly after the first few months
   and  reaches  background levels in  a few
   years. Therefore, urea-formaldehyde  foam
   insulation installed 5 to  10 years ago is
   unlikely to still release formaldehyde.

2. Durable-press  fabrics,  draperies, and
   coated paper products: In the early 1960s,
   there were  several  reports  of  allergic
   reactions to  formaldehyde from  durable-
   press fabrics and  coated paper products.
   Such reports have declined in recent years
   as industry  has taken  steps  to reduce
   formaldehyde levels. Draperies made of
   formaldehyde treated durable press fabrics
   may  add slightly to indoor  formaldehyde

3.  Cosmetics, paints, coatings, and some wet-
   strength  paper products: The amount of
   formaldehyde present in these products is
   small  and is of slight concern. However,
   persons  sensitive  to formaldehyde  may
   have  allergic reactions.

4.  Pressed Wood Products:  Pressed wood
   products, especially those containing urea-
   formaldehyde  glues,  are a source of
   formaldehyde. These  products include
   particleboard used in subfloors,  shelves,
   cabinets, and furniture; plywood wall
   panels, and medium-density fiberboard
   used in drawers,  cabinets, and  furniture.
   Medium-density fiberboard, which contains
   a higher glue content, has the potential to
   release the most formaldehyde.

5.  Combustion Sources:  Burning  materials
   such as wood, kerosene,  cigarettes,  and
   natural  gas,   and  operating   internal
   combustion engines (e.g.  automobiles),
   produces small quantities of formaldehyde.
   Combustion sources add small amounts of
   formaldehyde to indoor air.

6.  Products such  as carpets or gypsum board
   do not contain formaldehyde when new.
   They may trap formaldehyde emitted from
   other  sources  and  later  release  the
   formaldehyde into the indoor air  when the
   temperature and humidity change.

 Do You Have Formaldehyde-Related

  There are several formaldehyde-related
 symptoms, such as watery eyes, runny nose,
 burning sensation  in eyes, nose, and throat,
 headaches, and fatigue. These symptoms may
 also occur because of the common cold, the flu
 or other pollutants that may be present in the
 indoor air. If these symptoms lessen when you
 are away from  home or office but  reappear
 upon your return, they may  be caused by
 indoor pollutants, including  formaldehyde.
 Examine your environment. Have you recently
 moved into a new or different home or office?
 Have you recently remodeled or installed new
 cabinets, or furniture? Symptoms may be due
 to formaldehyde exposure. You should contact
 your  physician  and/or  state  or  local health
 department for help. Your physician can help to
 determine if the cause of  your symptoms is
 formaldehyde or other pollutants.

 Should You Measure Formaldehyde?

  Only trained professionals should measure
 formaldehyde  because they know  how to
 interpret the results. If you become ill, and the
 illness persists  following  the purchase of
 furniture  or remodeling with  pressed wood
 products,  you  might not need  to measure
 formaldehyde. Since these  are likely sources,
 you can take action. You may become ill after
 painting, sealing, making repairs, and/or
 applying pest control treatment in your home or
 office. In such cases, indoor  air pollutants other
than formaldehyde may be the cause. If  the
source is not obvious, you  should consult an
physician to determine  whether  or not your

          symptoms  might relate to indoor  air quality
          problems. If your physician believes  that you
          may be  sensitive to  formaldehyde, you may
          want to make  some measurements. As
          .discussed earlier, many factors can affect the
          level of formaldehyde on a given  day in an
          office or residence. This is why a professional is
          best suited to make an accurate measurement
          of the levels.

            Do-it-yourself formaldehyde measuring
          devices are available. These devices can only
          provide a 'ball park' figure for the formaldehyde
          level in the area. If you use such a device, you
          must carefully follow the instructions.

          How Do You Reduce Formaldehyde

            Every day you probably use many products
          that contain formaldehyde. You may not be able
          to  avoid coming in contact  with some
          formaldehyde in your normal daily routine. If
          you  are  sensitive to  formaldehyde,  you  will
          need to avoid many everyday items to reduce
          symptoms.  For  most people,  a  low-level
          exposure to formaldehyde (up to 0.1  ppm) does
          not produce symptoms. People who  suspect
          they are sensitive to formaldehyde should work
          closely with a knowledgeable physician to
          make sure that formaldehyde is causing their

You can avoid exposure to higher levels by:

•  Purchasing  low formaldehyde-releasing
   pressed  wood products  for  use  in
   construction or remodeling of homes, and
   for furniture, cabinets etc. These could
   include  oriented  strand  board  and
   softwood  plywood  for construction, low
   formaldehyde-emitting  pressed  wood
   products or  solid wood for furniture and
   cabinets. Some products  are  labeled  as
   low-emitting, or ask for help in identifying
   low-emitting  products.

«  Using alternative products such as lumber
  or metal.

* Avoiding  the  use of foamed-in-place
  insulation containing formaldehyde,
  especially  urea-formaldehyde  foam

• Washing durable-press fabrics before use.

         How Do You Reduce Existing Formaldehyde

           The choice of methods to reduce formalde-
         hyde is unique to your situation. People who
         can help you select appropriate methods are
         your  state  or  local  health department,
         physician, or professional expert in indoor air
         problems. Here are some  of the methods to
         reduce indoor levels of formaldehyde.

           1.  Bring large  amounts of fresh  air into the
              home.  Increase ventilation by  opening
              doors and  windows  and installing  an
              exhaust fan(s).

           2.  Reduce the humidity level in your home.

           3.  Seal the  surfaces  of  the  formalde-
              hyde-containing product. You  may use a
              vapor  barrier such  as  some  paints,
              varnishes, or  a layer  of vinyl  or polyure-
              thane-like  materials. Be sure to seal
              completely,  with a material that does  not
              itself contain formaldehyde.

           4.  Remove from your home the product that
              is  releasing formaldehyde in the  indoor
              air. When other materials in the area such
              as carpets, gypsum  boards, etc., have
              absorbed formaldehyde, these  products
              may also start releasing it into the  air.
              Overall  levels of  formaldehyde  can be
              lower if you increase  the ventilation over
              an extended period.

   One method NOT recommended by CPSC is
 a chemical treatment with strong  ammonia
 (28-29% ammonia in water) which results in a
 temporary decrease in formaldehyde levels. We
 strongly discourage such treatment since
 ammonia  in  this strength  is extremely
 dangerous to handle. Ammonia may damage
 the  brass  fittings of a natural gas system,
 adding a fire and explosion danger.
For more information:

For a copy of "The Inside Story: A Guide to
Indoor Air Quality," send 500 to:

  Consumer Information Center
  Dept. 434-W
  Pueblo, CO 81009

For more information about biological
pollutants, asbestos, and indoor air quality in
your home, write to:

  U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
  Washington, D.C. 20207

Additional information is available from:

  American Lung Association
  1740 Broadway
  New York, NY. 10019-4374
  (local ALA offices also have information)

  The Formaldehyde Institute Inc.
  1330 Connecticut Ave., N.W.
  Washington, D.C. 20036

  Local and State Health Departments


               Reprinted by the
 United States Environmental Protection Agency

     Printed with Vegetable Oil Based Inks
on paper that contains at least 50% recycled fiber

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