For Frog's Eyes Only: What is Formaldehyde?

Decoding Household Chemicals


Formaldehyde might remind you of preserved frogs in high school chem lab. Unfortunately, formaldehyde has left the lab and entered our homes. Because of its widespread use and toxicity, formaldehyde is a major issue for indoor air quality and public health. The EPA classifies formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. Although its list of crimes is long and unsavory, including immune-system toxicity, respiratory irritation and cancer, its product list is even longer.

You will see formaldehyde in a broad range of products, including compressed wood furniture and cabinetry, crease-resistant textiles, carpets, personal care products, dry-cleaned fabrics, paints, mothballs, air fresheners, cigarettes and vinyl products, to name just a few.

The Skinny Science:

Formaldehyde is a colorless, toxic, water-soluble gas that is usually made by oxidizing methyl alcohol. In liquid solutions, it is used as a disinfectant, a preservative, an adhesive, and as a component in plastics. Formaldehyde is a human health issue because it becomes very unstable and easily vaporizes as a toxic gas when exposed to air, light, and humidity. It is a VOC -- a volatile organic compound -- and should be avoided whenever possible.

Word to the Wise:

The EPA states that no level of formaldehyde is safe and that indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental dangers to public health. On average, indoor air quality is twice as polluted as the air immediately outside. Formaldehyde is a major player in this, so be especially vigilant of the following early symptoms: irritated eyes and respiratory system, nausea, headache, diarrhea, nosebleed, fatigue, and dizziness. Here are some quick and long-term fixes to green your routine.

Quick Fixes:

  • Eliminate all household cleaners and personal care products containing formaldehyde.
  • Switch out formaldehyde-treated curtains and window treatments. (You'll know if you have them by their crease-resistant property.)
  • Use an air purifier.
  • Ventilate your home often.

Long-term Fixes:
  • Seal your compressed wood furniture and cabinets.
  • Avoid compressed wood products.
  • Choose hard floors over carpets.  (If hard floors are not an option for you right now, request that your carpet is aired before installation.)

As always, stay informed and green your routine to what fits you best.

Extra Tidbits:

 
(Image: Flickr member Alvin K licensed for use under Creative Commons)