If you have a chronic lung disease like asthma, it is likely that you are very aware of all the potential health dangers of breathing in certain chemicals. Formaldehyde, for example, is a harmful carcinogen that people who have respiratory health conditions want to avoid exposure to as much as possible. Even if you have healthy lungs, formaldehyde may pose a risk to your health and cause a range of symptoms. Long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been linked to rare nose and throat cancers in workers, according to the CDC.
Unfortunately, formaldehyde is found in nearly every home—and the products inside. While you may not be able to eliminate your exposure completely, there are some ways you can mitigate the risk and keep yourself and your family healthy at home. Below, learn what formaldehyde is, where you might find it in your home, and how to remove it and lessen your exposure.
What is formaldehyde and what causes formaldehyde in your home?
Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical with a strong odor (some describe it as “pickle-like”) that is often used in manufacturing a variety of products including pressed-wood, adhesives, fabrics, and insulation materials. It is also used as an industrial disinfectant, fungicide, and germicide. While it is man-made, it can also occur naturally; it is produced by the metabolic processes of most living organisms, albeit in small amounts. At room temperature, formaldehyde becomes a gas, making it part of a larger group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It is found in gas stoves and open fireplaces, as well as outdoors in automobile emissions.
Since formaldehyde is used in the manufacturing of many household items—from furniture to cosmetics—it is present in every home. Higher concentrations of formaldehyde are found in homes with new products or new construction, as well as in homes with people who smoke tobacco products.
What are the health effects of formaldehyde exposure?
In 1997, a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that formaldehyde is normally present indoors and outdoors at low levels, usually less than “0.03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm).” This means that most people are coming into contact with some amount of formaldehyde. If you are not sensitive to it, you may never experience any symptoms. There are, however, some people who are more likely to be affected by breathing in even small amounts of formaldehyde:
- Young children
- Elderly people
- Pregnant women
- People with asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory illness or chronic condition
Some symptoms of short-term exposure to formaldehyde in your home include:
- Scratchy eyes
- Watery eyes
- Sore throat
People with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), or other respiratory illnesses may experience an increase in breathing problems when exposed to formaldehyde, even for short periods of time.
Studies have found that long-term exposure to formaldehyde can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer in rats, particularly those that affect their nose and throat. The National Cancer Institute states that some studies of humans have indicated that high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde is associated with certain types of cancer. This is especially true for professionals who are potentially exposed at work.
Where is formaldehyde found in your home?
As we mentioned above, formaldehyde can be found in nearly every corner of your home. Since it is a chemical used to manufacture so many different products, the off-gassing of formaldehyde can occur anywhere from the paint on your bedroom walls to that box of fabric softeners sitting atop your dryer. Here, we will narrow it down by room, so you can be aware of which household items might be giving off formaldehyde, so you can know where to take action.
Where to check for formaldehyde in your bedroom
Your bedroom should be a place where you can rest without worry. However, the very place you are resting your head each night may have products that are a potential source of formaldehyde off-gassing.
The walls and floor
Formaldehyde may be found in the paint on your walls, as well as in the carpet adhesives on the floor. Some paints, however, are advertised as “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” and may contain lower levels of formaldehyde. If you have wood paneling on your walls, formaldehyde may be present there, too.
Bed frame, nightstand and dresser
That is right—if your bedroom furniture is made of pressed-wood products such as fiberboard, plywood, or particle board, it may have been manufactured using formaldehyde. Additionally, if any of the furniture is made with a fire retardant, it could contain formaldehyde. At room temperature in your home, formaldehyde turns to gas and releases into the air you breathe.
Closet and dresser
Your closet is another place that formaldehyde can be found. Clothing made with fabric dyes or synthetic fabrics, as well as permanent-press clothing and anything with a wrinkle-resistant spray or fire retardant on it, could be made using formaldehyde, so anywhere you store your clothes may have this chemical.
Where to check for formaldehyde in your bathroom
Your bathroom may seem like an unlikely spot for manufacturing chemicals but, alas, it can be found in many products you may not have suspected.
The toilet paper
The manufacturing process used to create toilet paper often uses formaldehyde. So, while you cannot just stop using this product altogether, it may be worth looking into a “green” version that does not use it.
Shampoo and body wash
Again, the way your shampoos and soaps are manufactured—though there are potential all-natural or organic products on the market—may be processed with formaldehyde as a preservative and anti-bacterial agent. While this does help ensure your shampoo is shelf stable for longer than a week or two, it also means that you could be washing up with a harmful chemical.
Cosmetics and personal care products
Products like nail polish, makeup, hairspray or styling balm could come from a factory using formaldehyde. As it sits in your cabinets or on your shelves, it may release the chemical in the form of gas into the air.
Where to check for formaldehyde in your kitchen
Kitchens, though somewhat notorious for being breeding grounds for harmful bacteria, and mold growth, could contain formaldehyde as well. Since formaldehyde from older construction is usually no longer present and there is not much new furniture that goes into a kitchen, those constructed decades ago may contain less formaldehyde than other areas of your home. The CDC reports that formaldehyde levels reduce over time and that most is released within two years. However, for newer homes with better insulation, less air movement may cause levels to remain for longer.
Paper grocery bags and paper towels
Even the paper towels and paper grocery bags you may have inside your pantry could contribute to formaldehyde off-gassing. Try replacing the bags with reusable shopping bags and the paper towels with washable cloths (just be sure to wash them before use).
The walls, floors, and cabinets
Just like in other rooms, the walls of your kitchen are probably covered with either paint or wallpaper. Both may look nice but can also contain formaldehyde. And while you may not have a carpet in your kitchen, it is likely that the adhesives used to glue the tile down do contain some of this carcinogenic chemical. The cabinets you store your dishes and food in could also contain formaldehyde—depending on how long they have been there, they may have already off-gassed most of it.
Your gas stove
Natural gas is one instance where manufacturers are not to blame for formaldehyde. Instead, natural gas emits formaldehyde, along with nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, on its own. This is why it is important to use an exhaust hood when cooking on a gas stove.
Where to check for formaldehyde in your living room
The living room is a high traffic area that has quite a few potential sources of formaldehyde in your home. Thankfully, the busy nature of this room also means that it may get aired out more than other rooms. Letting air circulate can help improve the air quality of the room, so it is a good idea to do this regularly, unless outdoor environmental conditions do not permit this.
Sofas, side tables, and coffee table
If you have pressed-wood furniture, varnishes on any of your wood furniture, or synthetic fabric on your couches or chairs, there is a chance you could have some formaldehyde in the air of your living room. This is especially true for those couches and chairs that are fire retardant—the process used to make it this way uses formaldehyde.
The walls and floors
Living rooms are usually carpeted, which means you may be experiencing formaldehyde exposure from the carpeting adhesive used when your house was built. If you live in an older house, this is not as much of a concern. However, if you recently added or replaced the carpeting, you should be aware of the risk of exposure. Also, the walls of your living room, whether paneled, painted, or papered, may contain formaldehyde, too.
Candles and air fresheners
Just as personal care products can contain formaldehyde, so can candles and air fresheners meant to make your home smell and feel better. As you spray or burn these products, you could be releasing formaldehyde into the air. Many of these types of products could be manufactured with this chemical, so you may want to look for products that are more eco-friendly.
Fireplaces and wood burning stoves
If you have either of these, you know how nice it can be to sit around on a cold winter evening. However, it is important to make sure they are cleaned properly and are well-vented at all times. Otherwise, they may release formaldehyde into your home and cause you and your family to get sick.
Additional places to check for formaldehyde in your home
While we have covered the main rooms and areas where you are likely to find formaldehyde, there are a few other places to check. These include:
- Outdoors where people may smoke tobacco
- Garage or driveway where cars are parked
- Outdoor area where kerosene is used
- Laundry area (detergents often contain formaldehyde)
How to remove formaldehyde from your home
Reading about how harmful formaldehyde is for your health and how it can be found in so many places in your home can be disheartening. However, when you know what to look out for (and where to find it), you can take action that keeps you and your family safe from unhealthy exposure. Here are some tips for removing formaldehyde from your home and limiting your exposure:
- Do not allow for tobacco smoke—Especially inside your home, smoke from tobacco products can cause an increased concentration of formaldehyde.
- Ventilate your home often—The CDC advises that Increasing the fresh air circulating throughout your home can help decrease formaldehyde. This can be done by opening windows in different rooms of the house to allow for a cross breeze. You can also open windows and turn on fans to help the air circulate. This may not be an option if you have asthma triggered by outdoor air pollution, pollen or other environmental or safety concerns.
- Allow products to off-gas—Before you bring a newly purchased piece of furniture into your home, the CDC recommends that you allow it to sit (unwrapped) outside of your living space for a few days (perhaps on a patio or in the garage) so it can release any remaining gases. You can also consider purchasing a floor model that has already been off-gassed or asking the store to let your product sit unwrapped in their warehouse for a few days.
- Control the humidity in your home—Not only can keeping your home at optimal levels of humidity help reduce your risk of mold growth, it can also help keep the items in your home from off-gassing. When the air is hotter and more humid, the amount of formaldehyde released may increase.
- Keep your fireplace or wood-burning stove well-vented and cleaned—Without proper cleaning and ventilation, chemical buildups can form and release into your air.
- Wash all clothing before wearing it—Consumer Reports says that manufacturers often use chemicals like formaldehyde to reduce shrinkage and make fabrics more wrinkle-resistant. Even one wash can remove residual chemicals before they comes in contact with your skin. The same practice should go for any bed sheets, blankets, and towels.
- For future purchases, try to find products with low- or no-formaldehyde—The best form of protection is prevention. The less formaldehyde brought into your home, the better. There are some products for your home that are intentionally made without formaldehyde. It may be a good idea to seek out these types of low-VOC products when you can.
- Use an exhaust fan when cooking—This can help dilute and disperse the formaldehyde released from a gas stove while cooking.
After taking the precautionary steps listed above, you may consider the Molekule air purifier to help reduce levels of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) like formaldehyde. Its unique technology actually breaks down these chemicals at the molecular level, while other air purifiers like HEPA filters do not address them at all. Carbon air filters are another solution, though they do have the drawback of potentially off-gassing if the filter becomes saturated or environmental conditions change.
Independent lab testing has shown that the Molekule Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) technology will remove harmful chemicals like formaldehyde from the air.
Low levels of formaldehyde exist in nearly all homes, and it may be impossible to entirely prevent the introduction of new amounts into the home. If you or a family member is especially sensitive to airborne chemicals because of asthma or another respiratory illness, or if young children or older adults live in the home, it is important to consider ways to remove and reduce levels of formaldehyde in your home.
Since you cannot completely avoid coming into contact with formaldehyde in your home, there is no need to be discouraged. Consider following the guidelines above; taking these steps may require an upfront investment of time but your health and the health of your family is worth it.