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Protect Healthcare Workers from Exposure to Formaldehyde
November 6, 2018, Updated April 2019
Formaldehyde health and safety is vital since the chemical has many uses in the healthcare industry, not just preserving bodies in the morgue.
Formaldehyde is used as a disinfectant as well as a tissue preservative. As a tissue preservative, it can be found in histology labs where tissues are sectioned and prepared for microscopic analysis. Of course, autopsies can also subject the examiner and assisting personnel to formaldehyde vapors.
Did you know that medical students are very likely overexposed to Formaldehyde in anatomy laboratories? Cadavers studied by medical students are preserved in formalin, a combination of formaldehyde and alcohols. Air testing of medical students and staff in many medical schools show regular exceedances of the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)—and certainly well above a recommended safe level considering it is a cancer-causing substance. The controversy is that medical students are not employees and thus not under OSHA jurisdiction. But the medical staff is considered by OSHA.
OSHA’s PEL for Formaldehyde (0.75 ppm – 8-hour time-weighted average) does not reflect a level that considers its carcinogenicity. Due to legal challenges, OSHA has not been successful in reducing the PEL to where it would be considered a reasonably safe level in a working environment, such as a hospital or laboratory.
A number of agencies throughout the country—and the world—have established much lower levels than OSHA with the carcinogenicity factor in mind. Health Canada recommends a 30 minute limit of 0.1 ppm. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a 30 minute limit of 0.08 ppm for the general public, and NIOSH recommends an occupational (worker) exposure limit of 0.016 ppm (8-hour time-weighted average).
Healthcare workers use Formaldehyde containing solutions as a disinfectant as well. Of course, such professionals as dentists and veterinarians will also find Formaldehyde in their cleaning/disinfecting and preserving solutions.
Formaldehyde is actually a gas at room temperature but is highly soluble in water and alcohols. Contact, especially with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, and throat) can cause irritation, and many exposed individuals also develop an allergic sensitization resulting in dermatitis and rashes.
Fortunately, Formaldehyde can be fairly and easily sampled in the air. A variety of testing/sampling methods can be employed to evaluate hospital and healthcare workers. The interpretation of the results and defining workable protection and exposure reductions is another matter. An industrial hygienist may be the most suitable person to do the testing, evaluate and recommend corrective measures when it comes to Formaldehyde health and safety.
Control measures are highly dependent on use and exposure concentrations but can include downdraft ventilation, hoods, local exhaust, skin and body protection, and respiratory protection.
Written by Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, CSP
Robert E. Sheriff is the CEO of Atlantic Environmental. A Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, he has over forty years of experience providing human health hazard assessments and ventilation design in industrial settings. For more information and a free proposal, contact him at 800-344-4414, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply get in touch using the Atlantic Environmental contact form.
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