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Formaldehyde Exposure in the Workplace – How Do You Know If It’s Harming You?

If you need assistance with formaldehyde exposure in the workplace as discussed in this article, call us at 973-366-4660 or e-mail us at info@atlenv.com for details and a free estimate.

Written By:  Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
April 22, 2020

Formaldehyde Exposure in the Workplace
Formaldehyde – Now A Suspect Cancer-Causing Substance

There are both short term and long term exposure hazards from formaldehyde.  The primary problem is the inhalation of the chemical but it is also known to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.  EPA has now listed formaldehyde as a suspect human carcinogen.  Animal studies have shown an increase in nasal cell cancer and some limited human studies have shown an increased incidence of nasal and lung cancers.   OSHA has a specific standard for formaldehyde 29CFR1910.1048.   This standard has set a PEL at 0.75 ppm for an 8-hour Time Weighted Average (TWA) and an action level of 0.5 ppm.

Formaldehyde – Building Materials

The most publicized use has been in manufactured homes and mobile homes as an insulation material; however, it was used extensively in spray-on applications in individually constructed homes until about the year 2005.  FEMA has been overwhelmed with actions related to exposure to formaldehyde in temporary housing for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.  In early 2015, it was discovered that some laminate engineered flooring products imported from China may contain formaldehyde.  The formaldehyde is likely a component of the adhesive used to make the base composite and adhere the laminate to the underlying composite.  California set strict formaldehyde emission limits that went into effect in 2012.  The federal government is considering adopting the California limits or possibly even stricter emission limits.

The Many Uses of Formaldehyde

In addition to insulation and particleboard, formaldehyde is found in many other products.  This includes cosmetics (major cosmetic suppliers even advertise “formaldehyde-free” cosmetics), permanent press resins in clothing and draperies, glues, adhesives, paint preservatives, tobacco smoke, photo development chemicals, tissue preservative (medical school cadavers and preserved specimens), disinfectants and agricultural products.  Oh, and one more thing!  Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance.  Even humans produce a small amount as part of regular metabolism.  It also is produced in forest fires, vehicle exhaust, and cooking.  It is also produced in fruits and vegetables such as apples, carrots, and bananas.

A Table of Worldwide Limits for Formaldehyde

Several agencies worldwide have established recommended safe levels of formaldehyde which vary significantly depending on the group exposed (workers or the general public) and their ability to adjust the acceptable levels as new knowledge becomes available. The following is a listing of the various agencies and their recommended levels, from highest to

Description Agency Concentration
(parts per million)
Exposure Duration Audience
PEL-STEL OSHA 2 ppm 15 Minutes Workers
PEL OSHA 0.75 ppm 8 Hours Workers
Action Level OSHA 0.5 ppm 8 Hours Workers
TLV ACGIH 0.3 ppm 8 Hours Workers
Ceiling NIOSH 0.1 ppm 15 Minutes Workers
ELGV Health Canada 0.1 ppm 1 Hour Residential
AQGV WHO 0.08 ppm 30 Minutes Public
ACUTE REL CA. EPA 0.076 ppm 1 Hour Public
ELGV Health Canada 0.04 ppm 8 Hours Residential
ACUTE MRL ATSDR 0.04 ppm 0-14 Days Public
INTERMED MRL ATSDR 0.03 ppm 14 Days-1 Year Public
INTERMED REL CA. EPA 0.027 ppm 8 Hours Public
TWA-REL NIOSH 0.016 ppm 8 Hours Worker
Chronic MRL ATSDR 0.008 ppm 1 Year or More Public
Chronic REL CA EPA 0.0024 ppm Continual Public


Testing/sampling for formaldehyde can be done on workers, materials, and the indoor air, as prescribed by the particular situation.  Since formaldehyde is naturally produced, any sampling should include an outdoor reference sample.  An Industrial Hygienist is well equipped to perform such testing and sampling.  The next step requires an experienced professional to interpret and explain the results and their ramifications in a meaningful way. That’s what industrial hygienists do. 

For more information and a free proposal, contact us at 973-366-4660 or info@atlenv.com.

Our primary service areas for Formaldehyde Exposure in the Workplace Sampling/Testing and Consulting are New Jersey NJNew York NY, (New York City)Pennsylvania PAConnecticut CTDelaware DEMassachusetts, (Boston) MARhode Island RIWashington DCWisconsin WIMaryland MDMichigan MIIllinois (Chicago) ILVirginia VAIndiana INGeorgia (Atlanta) GAAlabama ALNorth Carolina NCSouth Carolina SCTennessee TNTexas (Dallas, Ft Worth) TXOklahoma OKDCArkansas AR, Florida FL. We can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.

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