Formaldehyde is widely used in many products. Long-term exposure may affect health.
What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas or liquid that has a pungent, suffocating odor. It is a volatile organic compound, which is an organic compound that easily becomes a vapor or gas. It is also naturally produced in small, harmless amounts in the human body. The chemical symbol for formaldehyde is CH2O.
Formaldehyde is released into the air by burning wood, kerosene, or natural gas; from automobiles and diesel exhaust; and from cigarettes and other tobacco products. It is found in the air at home, at work, and outdoors, especially in smog. It is also found in some foods.
Formaldehyde is used as a tissue preservative in medical laboratories and as an embalming fluid in mortuaries. It is also used as a preservative in some foods and as an antibacterial ingredient in cosmetics, household antiseptics, medicines, dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, carpet cleaners, lacquers, and wood products. It is used as a preservative in some paints, paper coatings, and cosmetics; in the permanent press coating on fabrics; in carpets; and in some foam insulation materials.
Formaldehyde is used industrially in the manufacturing of other chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, latex rubber, photographic film, and preservatives; in glues and adhesives for pressed wood products such as particle board and plywood; in leather tanning; and as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant.
You can be exposed to formaldehyde by breathing it or absorbing it through your skin. You can be exposed by breathing indoor or outdoor air that contains it, especially smog. You can also be exposed by smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products, breathing cigarette and other tobacco smoke, or breathing smoke from gas cookers and open fireplaces.
You can be exposed to formaldehyde at home if you use unvented gas or kerosene heaters indoors. You can be exposed by using household products such as construction materials, latex paints, fingernail polish, cosmetics, disinfectants, glues, lacquers, manufactured pressed wood products, fiberglass, new carpets, permanent press fabrics, paper products, and some cleaners.
You can be exposed to formaldehyde at work if you work in a hospital, laboratory, mortuary, or chemical plant. You can be exposed to higher amounts of formaldehyde if you are a doctor, nurse, dentist, veterinarian, pharmacist, pathologist, embalmer, clothing or furniture factory worker, or teacher or student working in a laboratory with preserved specimens.
Formaldehyde is listed as a human carcinogen in the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it causes cancer of the throat, nose, and blood. Drinking large amounts of formaldehyde can cause coma and death due to respiratory failure. Drinking formaldehyde can also cause convulsions, intense pain in the mouth and stomach, nausea, vomiting, signs of shock, vertigo, stupor, and diarrhea. Direct contact of the eyes with formaldehyde can cause permanent eye damage or loss of vision.
Exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, severe shortness of breath, bronchitis, and rapid heart rate. Continued exposure can also cause severe allergic reactions of the skin and eyes, skin allergies and rashes, and asthma-like allergies with coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and a drop in body temperature.
Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde can irritate and burn the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. In women, exposure can cause menstrual disorders. People with asthma may be more sensitive to exposure to formaldehyde.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Indoor Air Pollution
Formaldehyde (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Formaldehyde (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
Formaldehyde (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk (National Cancer Institute)
Formaldehyde. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Formaldehyde. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Formaldehyde. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Map of Releases of Formaldehyde in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
What You Should Know About Formaldehyde in Mobile Homes (Federal Emergency Management Agency) (PDF — 1.50 MB)
Last Updated: April 19, 2017