Formaldehyde, you and the environment

While formaldehyde (also known as methyl aldehyde, methylene oxide, oxymethylene and oxomethane) is a natural occurring substance in the environment; mankind has pushed the presence of this toxic chemical to incredible levels; in fact, it’s one of the most common indoor pollutants.

Formaldehyde is volatile organic compound (VOC), meaning that it becomes a gas at normal room temperatures.

Avoiding formaldehyde-ridden products is very difficult.  Formaldehyde is used in the creation of polymers (plastics) and other chemicals and is very common in adhesives.

Some items common in your home and office that may contain formaldehyde include:

Car polish and cleaners
Air fresheners
Cleaning fluid
Insulation batts
Ironing sprays and fluids
Particle board
Plywood veneer
Softwood products
Hair products
Synthetic upholstery
Old carpets (no longer used in carpet manufacture)
Smaller rugs

Rather frightening isn’t it? The desk my notebook is on is made from particle board and resins; so it’s quite likely to be an offending article as are many other products as I look around me.

Formaldehyde – human and environmental poison

One of the problems of formaldehyde is that products containing it slowly give off toxic vapors over time. For humans, inhaling atmospheric concentrations above 0.1 mg/kg can cause eye and mucous membrane irritation, breathing difficulties and headaches. It’s interesting to note that many new mobile homes, houses and offices contain levels above this.

When in contact with the skin, it can cause irritation, burns and dermatitis, In large doses, formaldehyde can be lethal. The chemical is listed as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In many animals and birds, formaldehyde has the same effects as in humans when ingested or inhaled. It can also create reproductive problems such as low fertility. In an aquatic environment, formaldehyde is very and somewhat persistently toxic as it has a half life of between a day and ten days. Toxicity to plants remains unknown.

Avoiding Formaldehyde

There really is no way to totally avoid this chemical, especially in urban areas. On top of what man creates purposely, formaldehyde is also formed through sunlight interaction with smog; so driving your car less will also help decrease formaldehyde levels in the atmosphere. It’s also present in cigarette smoke.

While perhaps not such a major issue as some of the other environmental toxins, it’s just another poison our planet can do without and one I think we’ll hear more about in the years ahead.

Aside from driving less, it’s really a case of carefully examining the products you buy and not just looking for the ingredient ‘formaldehyde’, but also by its other names such as methyl aldehyde, methylene oxide, oxymethylene and oxomethane.

Determining ingredients is a feat in itself. I’ve just grabbed a bottle of a cleaning fluid that I was practically raised on to look for ingredients and … there’s none. A few other items I looked at had no ingredient listing either.

In these cases, use the power of the web to help you determine what’s in it. Run a query along these lines in your favorite search engine.

product name +ingredients


product name +msds

MSDS stands for Material Safety Data Sheet; a description of the chemicals in a product and data relating to health, handling and environmental issues. These data sheets can provide some sort of insight into the potential risks of the product you’re using.

For items such as particle board, and mass produced furnishings, you can also try consumer help lines that many companies make available; but you’ll need to ask very pointed questions as they aren’t likely to volunteer this sort of information. If they can’t or won’t give you an answer, then it just goes to show how much they care about the impact their products have on the environment. It’s also a great way to exercise pressure and let companies know that there are consumers who care about these issues.

I’m really beginning to believe that particularly in terms of cleaning fluids, air freshers, polishes, disinfenctants and many other household consumables, it’s best to make your own. Aside from the environmental and human health aspects; it often works out to be a cost saving exercise too. I’ll be trialing and writing more earth friendly recipes for these sorts of items in the time ahead!