Managing formaldehyde’s impact on indoor air quality is important in both the workplace and at home. Research has shown that exposure to a number of volatile organic compounds including acetone, toluene and formaldehyde can affect the health and well-being of building occupants to varying degrees depending on several factors. This guide looks specifically at the use of formaldehyde within the built environment, common health concerns, and exposure levels both at work and in the home. It goes on to consider what practical steps can be taken to reduce its impact and the benefits of indoor air quality testing.
What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a type of chemical classed as a volatile organic compound, or VOC. Volatile means that this type of chemical is a gas at normal room temperature. It is the simplest of all aldehydes and was first identified in 1868 by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. It’s a naturally occurring organic compound with the common name methanal and chemical formula HCHO. On its own, formaldehyde is very reactive. It’s therefore usually mixed with other chemicals to form a compound which is more stable allowing it to be used more readily.
It occurs naturally in the atmosphere and is often found as a by-product of burning organic materials, for example by forest fires or in a car’s exhaust system. At normal room temperatures, you can’t see the gas, but it has a very distinctive odour and is also highly flammable. In the environment, formaldehyde breaks down quickly when it comes into contact with bacteria or sunlight.
There is a wide range of uses for formaldehyde. You’ll find it in cosmetics like nail polish and lipstick, shampoo, glue, ink and some clothing fabrics. The construction industry also uses formaldehyde to bind insulation products together, or in wood panelling products.
What are the health concerns?
Links between human health problems and formaldehyde emissions were first made in the 1970s. During the oil crisis or that period, many buildings were made more air tight to save energy, exposing workers to higher levels of the chemical indoors. Exposure can result in a variety of symptoms including:
People with asthma might find that they have worse symptoms than other people who do not have underlying breathing difficulties. Children and elderly people are also more likely to be affected.
Some people are more sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde than others. There are also links between formaldehyde exposure and cancer in animals, and research is ongoing to see whether similar effects are noted in humans.
Cancer and formaldehyde exposure
It is widely accepted that formaldehyde in the air can cause allergic reactions and irritation in humans. Research is still ongoing into the link between formaldehyde and cancer, although evidence is growing that the link is indeed there.
One notable study was carried out by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the United States of America. Researchers looked at 25,600 people who worked in industries involved with the production of formaldehyde or using formaldehyde while making other products like plastic or plywood. These people worked in the industries before 1996. By 1994, the group which had worked with formaldehyde showed a greater incidence of death due to leukaemia than in the population in general. When the same group was followed up 10 years later, the link between exposure to formaldehyde and cancer was still clear.
In addition to the link between formaldehyde and blood cancers, the American studies also raised concerns of links with a rare form of nose cancer too, although more research is required. A link between formaldehyde and lung cancer has not been proven.
What the industry has to say
The industry involved in producing formaldehyde or using it to make other products has mounted a robust defence of the product itself, and the way in which it is produced. The industry has criticised the NCI report, especially the section linking formaldehyde to the rare form of nose cancer. There have also been claims that it is impossible for formaldehyde to cause cancer as the substance is so reactive. The industry claims that formaldehyde only reacts to the first tissue it comes into contact with, rather than being distributed through the whole human body.
Formaldehyde workplace exposure limits
In UK workplaces the health and safety regulations dealing with formaldehyde set exposure limits at a maximum of two parts per million (2ppm), which is a time-weighted average over eight hours. The short-term exposure limit, which is averaged over ten minutes is also 2ppm.
- Learn more about UK workplace exposure limits with the latest version of the EH40/2005 (Third Edition – 2018)
However, the UK Health and Safety Executive’s own research in to exposure limits recognise that health issues can be experienced at levels as low as 0.01 ppm. They therefore recommend that it is important that these workplace exposure limits (WEL) should not be exceed, and every effort should be taken to reduce exposure to as low as is reasonably practicable.
International workplace exposure limits
In Germany and Sweden the maximum indoor air quality limits are set at 0.1ppm. Whilst in the USA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) has set exposure limits to formaldehyde at 0.75 ppm.
Formaldehyde in the home
Unlike workplace exposure limits, there are no regulations about the levels of formaldehyde and indoor air quality issues in domestic settings. However, it is generally accepted that levels should be no greater than 0.1 milligrammes for every cubic metre of air. Those levels are equivalent to around 0.08 parts per million, when measured over half an hour.
Most homes in the UK fall well within these levels. However, there is a strong link between the age of a house and the levels of formaldehyde, probably due to the types of materials which were used to build it. For example, houses built before the end of WW1 have far lower levels than more modern properties built in the 1990’s. The other main factor affecting levels of formaldehyde and indoor air quality was whether or not particleboard was present in the property.
Usually, formaldehyde is really only a concern in new-build homes, a year or so after they have been completed. After this time, indoor air quality improves as levels begin to drop considerably. Builders are advised to look for materials which have been specially designed to have lower levels of formaldehyde in them. This includes wood products like flooring, cladding or panelling and permanent-press fabrics used in upholstery or curtains.
Formaldehyde is also a by-product of tobacco smoke. If you, or someone you live with, smokes, then the levels in your home will be higher than in the identical home next door where nobody smokes.
Indoor air quality and ventilation rates
One factor which was not studied in the survey of homes was how efficient the indoor ventilation was. Since the survey was done, the regulations about air-tightness and draughts in homes have become much stricter. Ventilation and indoor air quality are nowadays more affected by formaldehyde than before.
Indoor air quality is about the amount of fresh air from outside entering the space, and any sources of pollution or emissions inside the building. Formaldehyde might build up in a room from construction materials, household furnishings and other materials. Effective indoor ventilation will help to dilute the concentration of any pollutants in the air. However, if internal rates of ventilation are poor, then the indoor air pollutants will take longer to be removed. Current building standards now look for minimum ventilation rates of 0.3 litres per second per square metre of floor area.
Practical measures to reduce formaldehyde and improve indoor air quality
There are several very simple measures which all householders can take to try to reduce levels of formaldehyde. Many of these measures are equally applicable to offices and other commercial settings.
Indoor air quality audits and VOC testing
Specialist formaldehyde testing to detect levels of the gas inside offices and other workplace environments should only be carried out by trained professionals such as the indoor air quality experts at WTS. Our professional indoor air quality audits can help businesses identify the presence of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including toluene and acetone in their workplaces allowing remedial actions to be taken where necessary.
However, for many householders, it is often better to start with the more practical steps to minimise levels inside their home before embarking on expensive air quality testing.
Specialist indoor air quality solutions
WTS offer a comprehensive range of indoor air quality solutions to support business owners, property managers, health and safety professionals, and facilities management specialists. Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the identification and investigation of indoor air pollutants such as VOCs.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians, in-field specialists and consultants we can offer professional, cost effective indoor air quality solutions throughout the UK and internationally.
Contact us today to learn how our workplace solutions can help you keep you, your staff and other people safe.
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