Formaldehyde: the hype and the facts

There was a predictable panic that followed a "60 Minutes" report that blamed Lumber Liquidators for offering laminate flooring, manufactured in China, which was tainted with larger-than-permitted levels of formaldehyde. While the company continues to do damage control, in part by offering buyers free home air quality test kits, many people who have purchased the tainted products have wondered whether the flooring has already done irreparable harm to their health. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing agent, and little bodies (which may like to squirm and crawl or lay on the floor) are especially vulnerable to its toxic effects.

In cases like these, it’s a good idea to separate the hype from the facts and think about the real risks, and what you can do about them, if you fear that you may have been exposed. And most likely, you and your children have already been exposed to formaldehyde many times over, even if you never purchased tainted laminate floors from Lumber Liquidators. That’s because formaldehyde is already in a lot of the ordinary, indispensable things that are in, or on your house, or on your body.

Formaldehyde is one of the toxic chemicals I wrote about in my ebook, The Little Guidebook for Green Moms & Dads: how daily exposure to chemical toxins is hurting your kids (and what you can do about it). In fact, the chapter on formaldehyde also deals with formaldehyde releasers, which emit formaldehyde as a result of decomposition, or as a by-product of chemicals produced or synthesized from formaldehyde. Formaldehyde itself is probably best known as an ingredient in embalming fluid. Anyone who has had to dissect an animal in biology class would be familiar with that smell, and may even have experienced a visceral reaction to it.

Formaldehyde is not entirely synthetic: it also occurs naturally, as a by-product of combustion and other natural processes. It is produced by plants, animals, and humans in small quantities and may be found indoors and outdoors in significant concentrations.

Commonly, formaldehyde is found in in building materials (like the pressed wood products that may have been used to build your house), many household products, some keratin hair-straightening treatments (such as the Brazilian Blowout) and even in children’s clothing. Many of the personal care products you use every day have formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers in them.  And because it’s often a by-product of other chemicals that are used in these products, formaldehyde itself is not even listed as an ingredient.

If you see ingredients like DMDM hydantoin and 1,4 dioxane in your shampoo, lotion, sunscreen, cosmetics, baby products, or any other personal care products, they most likely contain formaldehyde. The same is true, though slightly less likely, with ingredients like formalin, formalith, methanol, methylene glycol, paraform, BFV, and several others. Here’s a simple test you can do at home or when you go shopping:  download my clippable “cheat sheet” by clicking here, then compare the ingredients listed under “formaldehyde & formaldehyde releasers”. You may be surprised to find out how many products contain this toxic chemical.

Formaldehyde is even in some of the vaccines you or your children might have had. With all the irrational panic over vaccinations that followed the outbreak of measles in back in January, I always wondered why no one was exploring the presence of other chemical substances used in vaccines as a possible cause of some of the health problems that children experienced after receiving vaccines. But that is a topic for another post, at another time. (Let me just state here, for the record, that my children and I are vaccinated and I do believe in vaccines, though I think there are problems with how they are produced and administered that aren’t being adequately addressed.)

So how worried should you be about formaldehyde exposure? The answer is not that simple. It’s both “a lot” and “not that much”.

On one hand, lowered limits for indoor air exposure have led to steady reductions in the amount of formaldehyde being emitted from building materials (including wood) and household products over time. On the other hand, concentrations of formaldehyde in outdoor air have risen over time. This is especially the case in high-traffic metro areas. An increasing use of biofuels and denser traffic, especially where these combine with high temperatures, are contributing greatly to the increase of formaldehyde outdoors. This trend is not being well monitored, and therefore, is not well regulated.

The Global Community Monitor, a non-profit community health and environmental justice organization, offers a simple but reliable set of testing tools to help you determine whether formaldehyde levels in your home are problematic. This is one of the many tools available to you as a consumer. As a concerned member of a global community concerned with the wider impact of exposure to toxins, pollution, and the damage these can have on your health and on the environment, you can do even more. Some of the weapons at your disposal are simpler to access and wield than you might realize. Take a look at my earlier posts on climate change and clean air to find out more. And in the meantime, stay calm and be informed.  Remember, exposure to a single chemical (in non-concentrated quantities) does not usually cause health problems; rather, it’s the daily exposure to multiple, poorly regulated and monitored chemicals (with hundreds more being manufactured every year) that causes damage to your health and the environment.  It’s the multiple, sustained levels of exposure that should worry you, and in the best case scenario, spur you to action (even if it’s only sharing the information with a few people you know!)