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Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
Updated April 2019
There are both short term and long term exposure hazards from formaldehyde. The primary problem is 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.
The most publicized use has been in manufactured homes and mobile homes as an insulation material. However, ti 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.
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 product 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.
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 lowest:
(parts per million)
|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|
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