Formaldehyde is a volatile organic chemical (VOC) used as a preservative, disinfectant, and binding agent in the building industry.1 ­It has been designated as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization and California’s Proposition 65, and a Hazardous Air Pollutant by the US Environmental Protection Agency. It is a key ingredient in several polymers used in building materials, such as phenol formaldehyde, urea formaldehyde, and melamine formaldehyde. While very small amounts of formaldehyde are naturally occurring, industrial activities and automobile exhaust cause large quantities to be released into the atmosphere. It is one of the main contaminants in smog and can produce carbon monoxide through reactions with other chemicals.2 Formaldehyde can be found in materials such as fabric treatments, carpets, and laminate wood products (like particle board, plywood, and furniture), which use glues and resins to bind materials.3 Some paints and adhesives also release formaldehyde into the air as they cure.4

Formaldehyde is released from these products and materials as a gas, over time. Because the highest concentrations of formaldehyde are found in indoor air, people are primarily exposed by inhalation.5 Workers may also be exposed while treating textiles or producing resins.6 Health effects due to long-term exposure include cancer of the nasal passages and throat, leukemia, and other cancers of the respiratory tract. Short term-effects include irritation of the eyes, nose, lungs, and skin. It can also cause nausea and headaches, and increased rates of asthma and allergic reactions in children. For this reason, many green building programs limit use of formaldehyde, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a standard in place to protect workers from occupational exposures.7 However, formaldehyde use continues to be prevalent and regulations are only partially effective in preventing exposure.8

  1. Parsons School of Design’s Healthier Materials & Sustainable Building Certificate Program
  2. Healthy Building Network
  3. Parsons School of Design’s Healthier Materials & Sustainable Building Certificate Program
  4. Healthy Building Network
  5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  6. Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  7. Healthy Building Network
  8. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

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