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Formaldehyde Safety Factsheet

August 2004

Formaldehyde (CAS# 50-00-0) is one of the most common chemicals in use today. It is found in many processes and products, being widely used as a preservative, embalming fluid, sterilant and fumigant. Formaldehyde is also used in the production of resins, plastics, dyestuffs, 'non-iron' fabrics, paper products, paint, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. With such widespread uses and applications, many people come into contact with formaldehyde in one form or another in the workplace.

Formaldehyde is a colourless gas with a strong, pungent odor. It is commonly used in liquid form as a 40% aqueous solution known as formalin and in solid form as a white powder called paraformaldehyde. Because of its volatility, both formalin and paraformaldehyde will readily give off irritating formaldehyde vapor with a strong odor.

Health Effects of Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde can affect you when you breathe its vapor or come into contact with materials containing formaldehyde. It reacts very rapidly with moist body tissue, so particularly vulnerable areas are those that can come into direct contact such as the skin, upper respiratory tract and eyes.

The effects of formaldehyde exposure can vary from person to person. Some may show symptoms of irritation at very low levels, while others can tolerate exposure to higher concentrations with little or no reaction. Typical exposure symptoms include:

L
O
W
0.1 - 5 parts per million Eye irritation, tears
Skin irritation
Respiratory tract irritation
M
O
D
5 - 20 ppm Burning of eyes and respiratory tract
Tears
Difficulty in breathing / coughing
H
I
G
H
20 - 100 ppm Chest tightening, pain
Irregular heartbeat
Severe lung irritation
Pulmonary oedema
Death in severe cases

Skin: Contact with formaldehyde solutions or resins can cause eczema (dry, flaking and itching skin) and in extreme cases can lead to dermatitis. This is a skin disease that can appear as a simple rash to severe skin cracking and blistering. These symptoms can also be caused by contact with clothing contaminated with formaldehyde.

Eyes: Exposure to formaldehyde vapor can cause reddening and a burning sensation in the eyes accompanied by tear production. Formaldehyde solutions coming into direct contact with the eye can cause serious damage to the cornea, possibly leading to blindness.

Nose, Throat and Lungs: Low ambient concentrations of formaldehyde can cause irritation of the upper respiratory tract. At higher concentrations, the effects become more severe, with levels above 10 ppm causing coughing and chest tightness. Exposure to very high levels can lead to death from throat swelling and chemical burns to the lungs.

In some people, exposure to formaldehyde vapors, even at very low concentrations, leads to respiratory sensitization resulting in an allergic reaction similar to asthma. This can be triggered at any time, even in individuals who have worked with formaldehyde in the past with no apparent reaction, resulting in shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing.

Cancer: Although there is no conclusive evidence available to prove that formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, it has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Formaldehyde is therefore considered to be a probable human carcinogen, particularly as a cause of nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers as these areas are more likely to come into direct contact with formaldehyde.

Controlling Levels of Formaldehyde Exposure

Most countries have legal limits in force that govern the maximum permissible levels of formaldehyde vapor in the working environment. While formaldehyde's strong odor means that some people can smell it at concentrations well below legal limits, others may not smell it even at higher levels. Also, prolonged exposure to formaldehyde vapor can lead to you becoming less sensitive to its smell and irritative effects. The only reliable way to determine exposure levels is to measure the amount of formaldehyde in the air.

Wherever possible, when using formaldehyde, exposure should be minimised by employing adequate engineering controls and safe working practices. Such methods include ensuring good ventilation and changing work procedures and practices. Local exhaust ventilation units (fume hoods) are a very effective means of control as they draw away harmful vapors before they reach your breathing zone. Enclosing or automating certain work procedures can also reduce exposure levels.

Where engineering controls cannot adequately control levels of exposure, they should be supplemented by the use of suitable personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators, eye protection, gloves and other safety apparel. A qualified industrial hygienist or safety professional should be consulted for guidance on the suitability and correct use of respirators. Gloves and other protective clothing should be made of a material that has a good resistance to formaldehyde, such as butyl rubber or neoprene rubber. It is important to note, however, that these materials are not totally impermeable to formaldehyde and should be replaced frequently to ensure that formaldehyde break-through does not occur.

NOTE: The information contained in this factsheet is presented for informative purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. You should consult the formaldehyde standard for your country or consult the appropriate health and safety regulatory body for guidance.


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