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 1-800-344-4414 or email us at for details and a free estimate.


Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President

November 6, 2018

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 adapting 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 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:

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 produces, 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 an industrial hygienists does.



Robert E. Sheriff is the CEO of Atlantic Environmental. A Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, he has over thirty years of experience providing human health hazard assessments, indoor air quality assessments and ventilation design. For more information and a free proposal, contact him at 800-344-4414 or email him at

Our primary service areas for Formaldehyde Sampling/Testing and Consulting are: NJ, NY, NYC, PA, CT, DE, (Boston) MA, RI, Wash DC, WI, MD, MI, (Chicago) IL, VA, IN, (Atlanta) GA, AL, NC, SC, TN, (Dallas, Ft Worth) TX, OK, DC, AR, we can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.