Formaldehyde undergoes rapid chemical changes immediately after absorption. Therefore, some scientists think that formaldehyde is unlikely to have effects at sites other than the upper respiratory tract. However, some laboratory studies suggest that formaldehyde may affect the lymphatic and hematopoietic systems. Based on both the epidemiologic data from cohort and case-control studies and the experimental data from laboratory research, NCI investigators have concluded that exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans.
In addition, several case-control studies, as well as analysis of the large NCI industrial cohort (6), have found an association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, although some other studies have not. Data from extended follow-up of the NCI cohort found that the excess of nasopharyngeal cancer observed in the earlier report persisted (9).
Earlier analysis of the NCI cohort found increased lung cancer deaths among industrial workers compared with the general U.S. population. However, the rate of lung cancer deaths did not increase with higher levels of formaldehyde exposure. This observation led the researchers to conclude that factors other than formaldehyde exposure might have caused the increased deaths. The most recent data on lung cancer from the cohort study did not find any relationship between formaldehyde exposure and lung cancer mortality.
What has been done to protect workers from formaldehyde?
In 1987, OSHA established a Federal standard that reduced the amount of formaldehyde to which workers can be exposed over an 8-hour workday from 3 ppm to 1 ppm. In May 1992, the standard was amended, and the formaldehyde exposure limit was further reduced to 0.75 ppm.
How can people limit formaldehyde exposure in their homes?
The EPA recommends the use of “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure in the home. These products emit less formaldehyde because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins. (Pressed-wood products include plywood, paneling, particleboard, and fiberboard and are not the same as pressure-treated wood products, which contain chemical preservatives and are intended for outdoor use.) Before purchasing pressed-wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture, buyers should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products. Formaldehyde levels in homes can also be reduced by ensuring adequate ventilation, moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity levels through the use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
Where can people find more information about formaldehyde?
The following organizations can provide additional resources that readers may find helpful:
The EPA offers information about the use of formaldehyde in building materials and household products. The EPA can be contacted at:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Radiation and Indoor Air
Indoor Environments Division
Mail Code 6609J
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20460
202–554–1404 (EPA Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA) Assistance Line)
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has information about household products that contain formaldehyde. CPSC can be contacted at:
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains information about cosmetics and drugs that contain formaldehyde. FDA can be contacted at:
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993–0002
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has information about formaldehyde exposure levels in mobile homes and trailers supplied by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA can be contacted at:
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Post Office Box 10055
Hyattsville, MD 20782–7055
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has information about occupational exposure limits for formaldehyde. OSHA can be contacted at:
U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
200 Constitution Avenue
Washington, DC 20210
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services that was created to coordinate toxicology testing programs within the federal government; to develop and validate improved testing methods; and to provide information about potentially toxic chemicals to health, regulatory, and research agencies, scientific and medical communities, and the public. NTP is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of NIH. NTP can be contacted at:
National Toxicology Program
111 TW Alexander Drive
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. Report to Congress on Indoor Air Quality, Volume II: Assessment and Control of Indoor Air Pollution, 1989.
2. International Agency for Research on Cancer (June 2004). IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 88 (2006): Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxypropan-2-ol. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol88/index.php
3. National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.
4. Hauptmann M, Stewart PA, Lubin JH, et al. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies and brain cancer among embalmers exposed to formaldehyde. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009; 101(24):1696–1708. [PubMed Abstract]
5. Hauptmann M, Lubin JH, Stewart PA, Hayes RB, Blair A. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies among workers in formaldehyde industries. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2003; 95(21):1615–1623. [PubMed Abstract]
6. Beane Freeman L, Blair A, Lubin JH, et al. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies among workers in formaldehyde industries: The National Cancer Institute Cohort. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009; 101(10):751–761. [PubMed Abstract]
7. Pinkerton LE, Hein MJ, Stayner LT. Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: An update. Occupational Environmental Medicine 2004; 61:193–200. [PubMed Abstract]
8. Coggon D, Harris EC, Poole J, Palmer KT. Extended follow-up of a cohort of British chemical workers exposed to formaldehyde. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2003; 95(21):1608–1615. [PubMed Abstract]
9. Hauptmann M, Lubin JH, Stewart PA, Hayes RB, Blair A. Mortality from solid cancers among workers in formaldehyde industries. American Journal of Epidemiology 2004; 159(12):1117–1130. [PubMed Abstract]
Source: National Cancer Institute.