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Formaldehyde – Protecting Hospital Workers

If you need formaldehyde sampling/testing assistance as discussed in this article, call us at 1-800-344-4414 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

Protect Healthcare Workers from Exposure to Formaldehyde

Many and Varied Uses

Formaldehyde health and safety are vital since the chemical has many uses in the healthcare industry, not just for 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 in formaldehyde vapors.

Medical Students and Teacher Exposures

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 alcohol.  Air testing/sampling 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 covered by OSHA!

OSHA Standard

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 A Gas

Formaldehyde is actually a gas at room temperature but is highly soluble in water and alcohol.  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 methods can be employed to evaluate hospitals 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.

Controlling Formaldehyde

Control measures are highly dependent upon use and exposure concentrations but can include downdraft ventilation, hoods, local exhaust, skin and body protection, and respiratory protection.

 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 info@atlenv.com.

Our primary service areas for Formaldehyde 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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