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Formaldehyde is a colorless and strong-smelling gas that is flammable at room temperature. It is used in making household products, building materials, as a food preservative and as an industrial disinfectant. It breaks down quickly in air and also dissolves easily in water to form formalin. Besides being synthesized, it also naturally present in the environment.
How individuals may be exposed
One of the ways that individuals may be exposed to formaldehyde is through inhalation. The toxicant is available in indoor and outdoor environments at low levels. Normally, it is exists at low levels of about 0.03 parts per million (0.03ppm). As a result, almost everyone has a chance on inhaling formaldehyde (NCI, 2011). However, the inhaled formaldehyde is often split by the cells that line the throat, airways, and nose; and only less than a third of it finds its way into the blood. Materials in the built environment containing the toxicant can also release it into the air as gas or vapor. Before the 1980s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was one of the main compounds used to insulate homes. Occupancy of such old buildings can expose individuals to the toxicant. The use of gas stoves, kerosene heaters, and other unvented fuel burning appliances can release the gas (NCI, 2011).
Another way of exposure is through the automobile exhaust. The exhaust released by automobile contains the harmful toxicant. Also, tobacco smoke contains formaldehyde, and both the smoker and those in the vicinity are exposed to significant levels of the toxicant. Additionally, industrial workers in factories that produce formaldehyde and formaldehyde-containing labs, funeral home employees, and lab technicians are at an increased risk of formaldehyde exposure. Lastly, formaldehyde exposure can also occur through the skin as individuals come into contact with liquids containing the toxicant (NCI, 2011).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Formaldehyde standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) protects and provides limits of formaldehyde exposure to workers at risk of exposure. The limits are for exposure to formaldehyde gas, materials that release it, and its solutions. Currently, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 0.75 ppm in the work areas (OSHA, 2011). The exposure is quantified as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). The standard also includes a second PEL for short-term exposure limit. The second PEL allows a maximum exposure of 2 ppm for a 15-minute period. There is also the action level set at 0.5 ppm measured as an 8-hour TWA that triggers worker medical surveillance and hygiene monitoring (OSHA, 2011).
There are both acute and chronic toxic effects of exposure to formaldehyde. One of the main acute effects of formaldehyde exposure is irritation of the nose, throat, eyes, and nasal cavity. Also, individuals can experience watery eyes, wheezing, chest pains, coughing, and nausea (NCI, 2011). Besides corrosion of the gastrointestinal tract, ingestion of formaldehyde can result in inflammation of the mouth, stomach as well as the esophagus (NCI, 2011).
Regarding the long-term effects, exposure to formaldehyde via inhalation is linked to numerous respiratory symptoms. Based on animal studies, there is strong evidence that links nasal respiratory epithelium and lesions to the chronic inhalation of formaldehyde (NCI, 2011). The repeated contact between the skin and formaldehyde solutions has also been established as the cause of allergic dermatitis in humans. Furthermore, menstrual disorders have been observed among females that use urea-formaldehyde resins at work. No developmental impacts are associated with the toxicant but it is linked with various types of cancers.
Possibility of formaldehyde being a carcinogen
Based on the information provided by American Cancer Society, animal tests done in the lab have shown that formaldehyde can cause cancer. When exposed to high amounts of the toxicant in occupational and medical settings, the victims can develop some types of cancers (NCI, 2011). In mice, the application of 10 percent formaldehyde accelerated the rate of cancer development caused by other chemicals. In laboratory studies conducted in 1980, formaldehyde was linked to nasal cancer in rats. Also, the toxicant is categorized as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (NCI, 2011). Also, the National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a human carcinogen in 2011 in its 12th report of known carcinogens.
Risk assessments would involve assessing whether formaldehyde is an irritant to the respiratory tract, eyes, and other body parts that it affects (Kacew & Lee, 2013). In terms of a quantitative risk assessment, workers exposed to formaldehyde would be assessed, and those with cancer identified. Also, a study would be done to show the relationship between exposure to formaldehyde or products containing it with site-specific respiratory neoplasms.
- Kacew, S., & Lee, B. (2013). Lu’s Basic Toxicology: Fundamentals, Target Organs, and Risk Assessment (6th Ed.). New York, NY: Informa Healthcare.
- NCI. (2011). Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet
- OSHA. (2011). Formaldehyde; Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved from: www.osha.gov/data/generalfacts