Formaldehyde Occurs Naturally and Is All Around Us
Formaldehyde is a substance made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is found naturally in every living system – from plants to animals to humans. In fact, humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde every day as part of our normal metabolic process.
Formaldehyde is a critical chemical building block in the production of hundreds of items and plays an important role in everyday life. For example, not only is the generation of formaldehyde essential for human metabolism, it is also used as part of the process to create and form many materials that we depend upon regularly. However, did you know that little or no formaldehyde is present in the final product? As an essential reactive intermediate (or ingredient) in the production of some of the most common items (e.g., building materials, flooring, medical devices, automobiles), the chemistry of formaldehyde is helping to improve the standard of living by creating products that last longer, and are higher in quality, performance, and safety with little to no formaldehyde remaining in the final product.
Formaldehyde is one of the most studied, and regulated, chemical substances in commerce today. Importantly, federal standards and regulations are in place to limit formaldehyde emissions and minimize any potential human health risks, including, for example, EPA’s regulations under TSCA Title VI, Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products, the most stringent formaldehyde product emissions standard in the world today. Since the early 1980s, this substance has been continuously studied to provide scientific information and support that regulated safe exposure levels for formaldehyde are protective. Given formaldehyde’s wide use, extensive product stewardship efforts have been implemented by industry, including the generation of state-of-the-art peer reviewed and published scientific research, to improve understanding and characterization of potential human health risks associated with formaldehyde.
Even though formaldehyde is already highly regulated by a number of agencies and exposures are low, well managed and controlled, it is understandable that the public may still have questions, especially when it comes to how safe is formaldehyde. That is why formaldehyde manufacturers and users continue to take their responsibility seriously, work with regulatory authorities and provide information on the safe use of formaldehyde and the products made from it.
- Formaldehyde is present naturally, in low levels, within our body. It is in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and beverages; it’s even in trees.
- Formaldehyde is one of the most studied chemicals in use today and more than 40 years of advanced science and practical experience clearly indicate there is a safe exposure level.
- Formaldehyde stakeholders have for decades, committed millions of dollars to scientific research to improve understanding of formaldehyde uses, exposure potential and risk.
- A 2019 peer reviewed scientific research publication from the University of North Carolina (UNC) provides one recent example in a series of research studies conducted over the past decade that support the fact that typical household formaldehyde concentrations do not cause adverse health effects.
- The World Health Organization has several health and safety guidelines in place, including the protective indoor air guidelines for formaldehyde, which are well below the highest air concentration which health effects are expected to occur.
Uses & Benefits
- House Shingles
- Laminated Beams
- Automotive Mirrors
- Lubricant Additives
- Auto Electrical System
- Door Lock System
- Fuel Systems
- Brake Pads
- Metal Castings
- Safety Systems
Formaldehyde is naturally occurring, all around us, and used to the benefit of all Americans. Since its discovery in 1859, formaldehyde has become an essential ingredient in the development of a variety of everyday items.
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde a day as a normal part of our metabolism. Inhaled formaldehyde is rapidly metabolized and ultimately converted to carbon dioxide and exhaled. Formaldehyde does not accumulate in the body.
Formaldehyde also occurs as a by-product from all combustion processes, such as forest fires, automotive exhaust and cooking. Low levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables, including apples, carrots and bananas. It does not accumulate in the environment or within plants and animals.
The ability for formaldehyde, in combination with countless other molecules, to chemically react and subsequently build resilient structures makes it one of the most functionally important chemical building blocks in the manufacturing world today. It plays an integral role in a wide variety of industrial applications across the automotive, aviation, textile, energy and building and construction industry sectors, among others.
Formaldehyde’s unique and versatile chemical properties make it a common and beneficial part of modern life. From the construction industry to the automotive, aerospace and health care industries – products based on formaldehyde technologies have broad roles in the economy, supporting 963,000 jobs and $553 billion in sales in the United States.
Formaldehyde is perhaps best known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties, but formaldehyde-based chemistry is used to make a wide range of value-added products. For example, the wood-based panel industry relies on the dependable performance of formaldehyde-based resins for composite wood products. Few, if any, compounds can replace formaldehyde chemistry in creating high-quality resins without compromising quality and performance, or making the final products more expensive. While formaldehyde is an essential building block in a diverse range of wood products, its end use is primarily in a converted form. That means that virtually all of the formaldehyde is consumed in making the final product.
People actually produce and exhale formaldehyde themselves. If a person is exposed to external sources of formaldehyde, the body breaks it down rapidly. Formaldehyde is one of the most-well studied substances and we know a lot about how to use it safely.
The general effects of formaldehyde on the human body are well-known. According to the large body of research available, the levels of formaldehyde to which the public is exposed are not high enough to cause adverse health effects.
TSCA is essential to ensuring protection of human health and the environment. EPA’s review of formaldehyde under TSCA will hopefully reassure workers and consumers that uses of formaldehyde chemistry are appropriately evaluated and managed using transparent, science-based standards to draw conclusions. EPA has made clear that designation as a high priority chemical “does not constitute a finding of risk” and should not be cause for concern.
Formaldehyde plays an integral role in a wide variety of industrial applications across the automotive, aviation, textile, energy, and building and construction sectors. The weight of the scientific evidence supports the conclusions that formaldehyde does not cause leukemia and there are clearly defined safe thresholds for formaldehyde exposure – thresholds that have been utilized by international scientific and regulatory bodies. It has been extensively studied, reviewed and regulated, when warranted, by the U.S. federal government.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has standards for workplace exposures to formaldehyde. These comprehensive health standards include limits on permissible exposures, requirements for monitoring employee exposures in the workplace, protective measures—including engineering controls, medical surveillance and communication—and training about hazards. Current standards, such as the OSHA Formaldehyde Standard, 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1048, protect the health of millions of workers and provide workplace controls for the production, storage, handling, and use of this important chemical.
According to the large body of research available, low environmental levels of formaldehyde that people may be exposed to do not cause negative health effects (e.g., Rhomberg 2011; Swenberg et al. 2013, Nielsen et al. 2016; Mundt et al. 2017). Notably, in 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) set indoor air quality guidelines for short- and long-term formaldehyde exposures of 100 ug/m3 (0.08 ppm).1 The WHO evaluated potential non-cancer and cancer effects and established air quality guidelines based on a threshold approach, concluding that formaldehyde exposures that do not induce sensory irritation are unlikely to lead to increased adverse effects. The WHO’s work was re-evaluated in 2016 to take into consideration new toxicology studies and published updates to key cancer epidemiology studies. The 2016 re-evaluation by Nielsen et al.2 found that the guideline value was still scientifically valid, that it remained health protective, and that the new data did not indicate a need to revise the value. In addition, Health Canada, the European Chemicals Agency and the German MAK Commission all recognize safe levels of formaldehyde exposure.
1 World Health Organization (WHO). 2010 Formaldehyde. In: Selected pollutants. WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality. WHO, Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, Denmark, pp. 103-156.
2 Nielsen, G.D., Larsen, S.T., Wolkoff, P. (2016). Re-evaluation of the WHO (2010) formaldehyde indoor air quality guideline for cancer risk assessment. Arch Toxicol 91(1):35-61.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to facilitate the development and dissemination of human health assessments of chemicals. This platform was intended as a tool to support and guide consistent risk management decisions. Over the past several years, however, the National Academy of Sciences and stakeholders have called for reforms to the IRIS assessment program in order to improve the scientific rigor and methods used to draw conclusions regarding human health risk. Notably, an IRIS assessment includes two of four required steps in the risk evaluation process (e.g. hazard identification and dose-response). The IRIS hazard assessment includes no consideration of actual human exposures or their relation to human health risk. Unlike IRIS, TSCA risk evaluations are required to conduct a full evaluation of available information related to hazard, dose- response, exposure and risk to determine human health risk. Additionally, under TSCA, EPA must use scientific standards and base its decisions on the best available science and on the weight of the scientific evidence.