Moving into a newly constructed or recently renovated property can be an exciting prospect. There are typically no worries of common environmental problems such as asbestos, lead, or mold in these homes. One potential problem that could be overlooked is formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) and a human carcinogen utilized in a variety of industrial, commercial, and scientific applications. It is also a common component of new building materials. In this blog article, I’ll cover some of the fundamentals of formaldehyde and finish up by recommending when formaldehyde testing is necessary.
Basics of Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a simple compound, containing just one carbon, one oxygen, and two hydrogen atoms. Although formaldehyde was first synthesized by Russian chemist Alexander Butlerov in the mid-1800s, it does occur naturally at minuscule levels in living organisms, the upper atmosphere, and also in the interstellar medium. While formaldehyde is “natural”, its primary use was as an industrial grade disinfectant and a preservative for human remains due to its powerful antiseptic properties. Formaldehyde’s physical characteristics are a colorless gas with a strong pungent odor.
One of formaldehyde’s current commercial uses is in a polymer known as urea-formaldehyde. This polymer is coveted due to its high durability and versatility. The polymer is used in the production of laminates, fabrics, textiles, and foam insulation. Its usage in laminates became widely known to the public after the TV news show 60 minutes did an expose on formaldehyde in flooring from Lumber Liquidators. The laminate products were measured off-gassing formaldehyde at levels well in excess of the CARB Formaldehyde compliance stamp on the packaging. Lumber Liquidators had to pay out millions in compensation for their toxic product.
Formaldehyde is especially a concern in properties with “engineered” or “composite” wood products such as particle board, medium density fiberboard (MDF), and oriented strand board (OSB). There are available products with “no added formaldehyde”, but usually these come at a cost premium and are avoided by the average contractor.
Formaldehyde Health Effects
Formaldehyde can cause both acute and chronic health effects. For chronic exposures, formaldehyde is recognized as a human carcinogen by the EPA for causing nasal cancer. There may also be associations with brain cancer and leukemia in individuals with chronic exposures to formaldehyde. Acute exposure may lead to burning and stinging eyes, headaches, skin rashes, neurological problems, nausea, and cancer risk.
At Indoor Science, we offer two varieties of formaldehyde testing. The first is a photoelectric detector which uses a reusable sensor which runs for 30 minutes and uses a chemical reaction in order to determine the levels of formaldehyde down to the low parts-per-billion range. The second method is a laboratory-based air test which collects air into a special sorbent tube. The sorbent tube is sent out to an accredited laboratory and analyzed by a HPLC-UV method.
When Should you Test?
If you are moving into a new or renovated property, we recommend conducting formaldehyde testing to assess your potential exposure if you have any of the following present:
- Laminate flooring products (and not just products from Lumber Liquidators)
- Particle board cabinets
- Furniture made with MDF or particle board
While we do offer formaldehyde testing; we don’t sell formaldehyde. Recently a person who saw the term formaldehyde on our website actually came to our office and attempted to purchase it, to our bewilderment.