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Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a colourless chemical with an unpleasant smell. At room temperature, formaldehyde is a gas. It also comes in a liquid solution called formalin.

Formaldehyde is widely used in various industries and as a preservative and disinfectant.

  • How you're exposed to formaldehyde

    Formaldehyde is normally present in indoor and outdoor air at low levels. Materials containing formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas or vapour into the air. Certain workers may also be exposed to formaldehyde.

    Indoor and outdoor exposure

    There are many products that contain formaldehyde, which can release formaldehyde gas into the air. Formaldehyde is:

    • used in building and construction materials
    • found in furniture and cabinets made from pressed-wood products (such as particleboard, plywood, medium-density fibreboard) and glues and adhesives used to make these products
    • used in household products such as certain paints, varnishes and floor finishes
    • found in permanent press sheets, drapes and clothing
    • a by-product from burning certain substances
      • cigarette smoke
      • unvented fuel-burning appliances such as gas or wood-burning stoves and kerosene heaters
      • forest fires and vehicle exhaust

    Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was used in Canadian homes many years ago. Few homes are now insulated with UFFI. Homes that had UFFI installed many years ago probably do not have high formaldehyde levels now.

    Occupational exposure

    Some industries may expose workers to formaldehyde:

    • certain textile manufacturing
    • wood product manufacturing
    • plastic and resin production
    • funeral industry, medical and other healthcare services
      • Formaldehyde is used as a preservative and embalming agent.
    • fungicide spraying
      • Formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide (to control diseases caused by moulds) and as a disinfectant (to destroy microorganisms).
  • Formaldehyde and cancer

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a known cause of cancer.

    Some studies in humans have suggested that formaldehyde exposure is associated with certain types of cancer. These studies have usually been done in workers exposed to formaldehyde. Often, people who are exposed at work have higher levels of exposure than people who may be exposed in their homes.

    •  Studies have shown that formaldehyde increases the risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
    • There is limited evidence for an association between formaldehyde and an increased risk of sinonasal cancer (which includes nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer). Formaldehyde exposure often occurs in the same work environment as wood dust exposure, so it is difficult to say for sure if formaldehyde alone increases the risk.
  • Tips to reduce our exposure
    • Don't allow smoking indoors or in your vehicles.
    • Make sure there is adequate ventilation in your home to help reduce formaldehyde levels.
    • Maintain a moderate temperature and control moisture levels in your home. Heat and humidity tend to increase the release of formaldehyde from products into the air.
    • If you use wood-burning appliances, makes sure they are working properly. Make sure the chimney is not blocked and that there are no leaks that let smoke seep into the home.
    • If you're buying furniture or cabinets made from particleboard or medium-density fibreboard, try to buy items that are properly coated or sealed. Coating or sealing unfinished sides helps reduce the amount of formaldehyde released by these products. You can also look for products made with glues or exterior-grade pressed-wood products that do not contain, or contain less, formaldehyde.
    • Wash permanent press clothing and sheets before you use them.
    • Do not run engines, such as vehicles or lawnmowers, in an attached garage or workshop, or near windows or entrances of your home. Engine exhaust contains formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.
    • Follow health and safety measures at work to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde.
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