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Formaldehyde gas exposure health risks in homes: This article describes the health risks of exposure to formaldehyde gas in air or water, and we describe the proper steps to remove formaldehyde gas and formaldehyde gas emitting building products in order to improve indoor air quality in homes.
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Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous volatile organic compound (VOC) that occurs in nature and is widely used in building products, finishes, and furnishings because of its desirable properties and low cost. Nearly all products made with formaldehyde outgas to some extent, but only a few contribute significantly to indoor air problems.
[Click any image or table to see an enlarged, detailed version]
List of Sources of Formaldehyde Gas in buildings
Formaldehyde is used to add permanent press qualities to clothing and drapes, as a preservative in many paints and coatings, and as the adhesive resin in some carpeting, fiberglass insulations, and pressed wood products. It is also a product of combustion found in tobacco smoke and the fumes from gas stoves and other unvented combustion.
Table 7-7 at left lists the Contributions of Formaldehyde to Room Air from various building materials and activities.
During the 1970s, it was used in urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI), which was blown into the walls of many homes in the U.S. and Canada and later banned after elevated levels of formaldehyde were found in a small number of homes. Testing has since shown that, in most cases, any excess formaldehyde was released within a few days of installation.
Nonetheless, the material was removed from a large number of homes and banned for several years in the United States and permanently banned in Canada. See UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI for details about UFFI insulation and formaldehyde concerns.
By far, the most significant source of formaldehyde in homes today is pressed wood products made with urea- formaldehyde resins. These include particle board, interior hardwood paneling, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which has the highest concentration of urea- formaldehyde of any pressed wood product. The relative contributions of new materials to a single room are shown in Table 7-7, above-left.
Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually below 0.03 ppm both indoors and outdoors. However, buildings with high levels of pressed wood products can have higher indoor levels. For example, many manufactured homes have levels well above 0.03 ppm, due to their relatively small volume and large surface area of formaldehyde emitting materials.
HUD standards that limit the formaldehyde emissions of materials used in manufactured housing are designed to bring the ambient level to below 0.40 ppm, still over four times the 0.10 ppm limit recommended by most health and standards organizations, including ASHRAE and ANSI.
No standard exists for site- built homes. Health Effects. Sensitivity to formaldehyde varies widely. At levels between 0.40 and 3.0 ppm, most people experience watery eyes, burning sensations in the nose or throat, nausea, and difficulty breathing. Most people detect the chemical’s pungent odor at about 0.80 ppm, but many can smell it at concentrations as low as .05 ppm.
Formaldehyde & Asthma
High concentrations of formaldehyde may trigger asthma attacks, and there is strong evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde from exposure.
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Formaldehyde as a Carcinogen
Formaldehyde has been conclusively linked to nasal cancer in rats, while human studies have suggested a link to nose and throat cancer in humans, but are not conclusive.
Based on the current evidence the EPA and the International Agency for Research in Cancer consider formaldehyde a probable carcinogen prompting the lower workplace limits suggested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (see the Formaldehyde Exposure Limits in Table 7-8 at left). More information is at Formaldehyde Exposure in Homes:A Reference for State Officials to Use in Decision-making.
-- Above material was adapted with permission from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction. Updated through January 2014.
Urea Formaldehyde Outgassing Sources Continue in Modern buildings
As New Zealand building investigator Paul Probett has pointed out (May 2010) that UFFI continues to be a concern as a formaldehyde outgassing source and that building moisture and formaldehyde outgassing appear to have an important relationship:
In February 2008, in "CDC Releases Results Of Formaldehyde Level Tests", 14 February 2008", the Centers for Disease Control reported elevated levels of formaldehyde and related health concerns for the FEMA trailers. In "Formaldehyde Exposure in Homes:A Reference for State Officials to Use in Decision-making", the U.S. CDC, Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the US EPA reported on the past and current level of formaldehyde hazards in buildings.
For a different point of view, and from a group with special interests in the formaldehyde issue, see "The Formaldehyde Fuss", published by the RV Trade association who brought in their own expert to rebut the health concerns from formaldehyde and to address public perception of formaldehyde risks in RVs and mobile homes such as in the FEMA trailers and other mobile homes - September 2007.
Continue reading at Formaldehyde Gas Hazard Reduction where we discuss how to remove, avoid, or eliminate indoor formaldehyde gas hazards
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