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The Dangers of Formaldehyde in the Home

You may only know formaldehyde as the preservative used in taxidermy and funeral homes, but the chemical actually has many more applications, some directly associated with your house and the products you use every day. However, formaldehyde is highly toxic, and you should do everything you can to limit your exposure.

In its natural state, the organic chemical is an invisible gas noted for its pungent, unpleasant odor. When mixed with alcohol, it becomes formalin. Formaldehyde is used in many different compounds and is prized by the chemical manufacturing industry for its low cost. It has found its way into particle board, disinfectants, plastics, and dyes. It is also present in cigarette smoke.

The most serious dangers from formaldehyde occur because of off-gassing. When the chemical is used to create foam insulation or pressed wood products, it can eventually escape from the product, re-assuming its natural form as a gas. This off-gassing process takes time and usually occurs over years, filtering the gas throughout your house. Symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde include sinus trouble, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and similar problems. It has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and linked to nasal cancers. The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) is even more firm, stating that the chemical is carcinogenic to humans and has been definitively shown to cause nose and throat cancers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of a 2011 report, agrees.

Reduce Your Exposure

While formaldehyde may sound terrifying, there are ways you can test for exposure and reduce any formaldehyde levels in your home. Because the pickled smell of formaldehyde is so strong, it is easy to sense even trace amounts in the air. If you have recently bought a house, remodeled, or purchase pressed wood products (off-gassing occurs within the first couple years after a product’s creation), you may want to test your air anyway.

You can purchase a passive sample device to track exposure, but these devices have been shown to be unreliable. Contact your local or state environmental agency to track down an efficient test kit. These organizations will be able to suggest a reliable method of testing your home. There are active eliminators that essentially cycle air through a charcoal filter that absorbs any formaldehyde present, but these have been primarily used in commercial settings. Your best defense is removing any formaldehyde-laced objects, airing out your home for several days, and preventing future occurrences.

When possible, use reclaimed or floor model products that have already off-gassed. Humid air draws out formaldehyde from materials, so keep the air in your house cool and dry. Ensure proper ventilation of any smoke inside your home. If you cannot bear to lose an indoor product, explore barrier options like several coats of latex paint or a sustainable varnish coating that will help trap the chemical. If you are planning new purchases and are worried about formaldehyde, stick to real wood and non-toxic paints to be safe.

If airing out your house at regular intervals and buying natural wood isn’t quite enough for you, you can re-use wooden crates for decorative storage and shelving, use paper grocery bags, stick with eco-friendly glues, and avoid permanent-press fabrics.

Taking Action

There are very few current laws regulating the use of formaldehyde, and most apply to commercial situations. However, standards are beginning to change. Hurricane Katrina evacuees successfully sued a manufacturer of travel trailers when the trailers off-gassed dangerous levels of formaldehyde. Lawsuits like this are setting key precedents, and if you have been seriously injured by formaldehyde you should consider legal action as well.

Insurance companies also deal with formaldehyde in a commercial setting, but residential policies do not touch on the issue. Rely on your health insurance for medical problems resulting from exposure, and find cost-effective methods of dealing with additional issues on your own. Formaldehyde poisoning can be stopped and prevented with the right course of action.

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