Formaldehyde is a deadly chemical
The chemical and known human carcinogen formaldehyde pops up in many unexpected places, like pressed wood products such as cabinets and flooring, hair straightening or curling treatments, fertilizers, cigarette smoke, and some plastic and paper products. It is also used to kill germs, or as a preservative, which is its main function in the funeral industry. And, it is putting at risk the lives of those who deal with the dead. Even if formaldehyde were banned, it is so pervasive in society that completely preventing people from encountering it would be nearly impossible. It is in our homes, our schools, our cars, our personal care products. It wafts into the lungs of smokers and non-smokers alike. It’s that chemical used to preserve specimens. It has been for centuries, in fact. Dead animals (or organs) are injected with the chemical to stop deterioration and decay, and then they’re submerged in a preservation fluid, typically ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Where else might you find formaldehyde? Try opening your medicine cabinet or scoping out the area under your kitchen sink. The body actually produces formaldehyde naturally, but enzymes in the body break it down — first into formate (formic acid) and then into carbon dioxide. Since most of the formaldehyde that we all inhale is broken down by cells in the mouth, nose, throat and airways, less than a third of it is absorbed into the blood.
You may not know formaldehyde when you see it, but you'd probably know it by its smell. The colorless gas has a strong, suffocating aroma that some describe as pickle-like (but not in an appetizing way). The flammable chemical is widely used in a variety of home building products and as a preservative in medical laboratories, cosmetics — and yes, mortuaries. It’s also a by-product of car combustion, but you might be surprised to know formaldehyde naturally occurs — albeit in small amounts — in most living organisms, including humans. A few of the most common places where formaldehyde is common include: Some manufactured wood products like furniture, laminate flooring, cabinets and more; permanent press fabrics, like those used for furniture, carpets and curtains; some household products like detergents, glues and some paints; certain cosmetics; cigarette smoke and other tobacco products; smoke from gas stoves and open fireplaces; smog; medicines and vitamins; preserved foods; fertilizers and certain electrical wiring.
If you're wondering how formaldehyde can have such a toxic reputation and still be in so many everyday items, the answer is it’s all in the quantity. Most people who are exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde present in home products don’t experience any serious health complications. However, more sensitive people may not be able to tolerate those same low doses. The real risks of formaldehyde are associated with very high levels of the chemical, which has been linked to rare nose and throat cancers in workers in certain manufacturing facilities, power plants and a number of other industries. The Department of Health and Human Services determined in 2011 that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen based on sufficient human and animal inhalation studies. Some other types of employees who may be at risk for formaldehyde exposure include: Doctors, dentists, nurses, embalmers, veterinarians, clothing or furniture industry employees, plywood factory workers, pathologists, teachers and students who work in labs with preserved specimens.
In 2011, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Despite Risk, Embalmers Still Embrace Preservative.” The preservative in question: formaldehyde. Despite links to exposure and certain cancers, the article reported undertakers insisted “nothing else preserves the body long enough so that it is presentable for public viewing and can be shipped.” The US government classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in 2011, and yet its use persists, thanks largely to the industry lobbyists. A recent study reported that male funeral directors with regular exposure to formaldehyde products – such as the embalming fluid used to preserve bodies after death – were more than three times as likely to die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) than men who were not exposed to formaldehyde at all. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a motor neuron disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die. It can affect the ability to control the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe, and eventually leads to death. Perhaps not coincidentally, chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory, and equilibrium, as noted on the website for the US government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Aside from ALS risk or other nervous system consequences, formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant that causes chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and nose and throat irritation, according to the ATSDR. It can also cause cancer, and has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and allergies in kids. Formaldehyde is present in many childhood vaccines, put there to kill unwanted bacteria and viruses that might contaminate the vaccine during production. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most formaldehyde is removed from the vaccine before it is packaged, but that means some of the substance is left behind. And yet information on how low-level, chronic exposure to formaldehyde may impact our children’s bodies is relatively scarce. Do what little you can to protect your entire family from formaldehyde exposure. Read carefully the labels of personal care products – formaldehyde hides within chemicals like Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. If you’re buying new furniture, avoid pressed wood. Formaldehyde will get into anybody’s lungs, skin, blood, or body. It does not discriminate – but you can.
Formaldehyde can enter the body through the air, through food and water, and through the skin. Luckily, there are some simple ways to mitigate exposure and minimize the risk for serious health complications. Don’t smoke. There's a long list of reasons to quit cigarettes and all other forms of tobacco — here's another compelling one. Formaldehyde is a component in tobacco smoke, so lighting up in enclosed spaces can put you and anyone you live with at risk for excessive formaldehyde exposure. Keep your house well ventilated. One way to reduce formaldehyde levels is just airing out your house. Open a few windows when possible and/or consider using a ventilation fan to circulate fresh air. This may be especially important if you have a lot of pressed wood furniture or flooring in your house. Wash new garments. Whenever possible, launder brand new clothes and other fabrics known to have formaldehyde. A simple wash may help lower the amount of the chemical the fabrics release. Maintain your fireplace. If you use your fireplace, be sure to maintain it properly to prevent smoke from getting into your home. Burn only well-seasoned wood, and have your flue and chimney cleaned annually. Use low- or no-VOC paints. The VOC means volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde is one of the most common VOCs. These low- or no-VOC paints are now available everywhere.