Formaldehyde is a gaseous pollutant produced by both human activity and natural sources.
If you are exposed to formaldehyde, many factors will determine whether you will be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider any other chemicals you are exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
Naturally, small amounts are produced by plants, animals, and humans. Mostly, it can be found in the air, and indoor air releases include building materials (furniture, plywood, or particle board), consumer products, and tobacco smoke.
Moreover, formaldehyde can also be found in rainwater and surface water after the release from the manufacture, use, and disposal of formaldehyde-based products.
The primary way you can be exposed to formaldehyde is by breathing the air containing it. Usually, within hours, formaldehyde is quickly broken down in the air and it occurs from wood products (particle-board, plywood, furniture), paints and varnishes, and carpets and permanent press fabrics.
What concerns most people about it is the fact that indoor air often contains a higher level of formaldehyde than outdoor air and a large number of employees are potentially exposed to breathing contaminated air in the office.
Employees at risk for exposure to formaldehyde in the workplace include dentists, doctors, embalmers, nurses, pathologists, teachers and students who handle preserved specimens in laboratories, veterinarians, and workers in the clothing industry or in furniture factories.
The most common health problems in people exposed to formaldehyde include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Formaldehyde may cause occupational asthma, but this seems to be rare.
On a more serious note, some studies of humans exposed repeatedly to formaldehyde in workplace air found more cases of nose and throat cancer than expected. In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure. (Source: here)
Twenty-four years after, the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services, named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens. (Source: here)
So what can you do to reduce your potential exposure to formaldehyde? Read carefully the labels of personal care products – formaldehyde hides within chemicals like Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. If your office is thinking of buying new furniture, avoid pressed wood. Don’t smoke, and avoid places where people are. Formaldehyde will get into anybody’s lungs, skin, blood, or body. It does not discriminate – but you can.