Formaldehyde, though naturally produced by plants, animals, and even humans in small amounts, can be toxic. Commonly found in the environment, formaldehyde can severely affect human health. Long-term exposure to very high levels may cause rare nose and throat cancers. Therefore, it is crucial for professionals handling formaldehyde to understand its associated hazards and be knowledgeable about its safe handling practices.


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains official records that highlight numerous incidents where workers were injured due to exposure to formaldehyde. For instance, a dairy firm worker was hospitalized after being splashed with a 37 percent formaldehyde solution from an overfilled storage tank. In another incident, warehouse workers suffered chemical burns from a formaldehyde spill. These incidents underscore the critical need for proper and careful handling of formaldehyde, backed by thorough knowledge of its hazards and safety protocols.


If your facility requires formaldehyde, employees must be well-informed about its adverse effects. To gain comprehensive knowledge about this chemical and its potential dangers, continue reading this blog as we highlight critical facts and safety information about formaldehyde.


What is Formaldehyde?


Formaldehyde (CH₂O) is mainly a highly toxic, colorless chemical. It’s a strong-smelling flammable gas when at room temperature. Various industries produce it at the time of manufacturing. For instance, it plays a vital role in the production of fertilizer, plywood, and various other pressed wood products. It is also popularly used in various other household products such as medicines, cosmetics, and antiseptics. 


Formaldehyde naturally occurs in the environment. It is produced during the decay of plants in soil and through normal chemical processes in most living organisms. It is also found in tobacco smoke as a combustion product.

Routes of Exposure:


Formaldehyde is primarily a gas at room temperature, so workers and others are mainly exposed by inhaling its gas or vapor. It can also be absorbed through the skin. The following groups are at higher risk of formaldehyde poisoning:


  • Workers who produce formaldehyde or products containing formaldehyde
  • Laboratory technicians and certain healthcare professionals
  • Mortuary employees

The general public can also be exposed to formaldehyde from various sources, which may impact human health:

  • Breathing contaminated air from sources such as pressed wood products
  • Inhaling tobacco smoke and automobile emissions
  • Using unvented fuel-burning appliances, such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters


Use of Formaldehyde:


To fully grasp the concept of formaldehyde poisoning, it’s important to understand how this chemical is used across various industries. Below, we highlight some key uses of formaldehyde:


  • Agriculture: 


Formaldehyde plays a crucial role in the agriculture industry by ensuring safe meat, poultry, and aquaculture products. It also helps protect livestock from diseases that could cause significant economic losses for farmers. 


  • Aerospace:


Formaldehyde-derived chemicals and polymers are used in aerospace for their flame resistance, thermal protection, and impact resistance. For instance, Polyurethane foams are used to provide support and comfort in airplane seats. Honeycomb material reinforced with phenolic resins is used for cabin flooring and cargo liners to provide high-impact resistance.


  • Automotive:


In the automotive industry, formaldehyde-based technologies help make lighter parts for better fuel efficiency. They are also used to make strong exterior paints, tire adhesives, brake pads, and fuel system parts.


  • Construction: 


Formaldehyde-based resins are used as adhesives to glue wood chips and other materials together. They help make plywood, particleboard, fiberboard, furniture, cabinets, molding, trim work, insulation, flooring, paints, and varnishes. These materials are used in many housing industry applications like sheathing, cladding, and asphalt shingles.


  • Health Industry:


Formaldehyde helps create various resins, which are used to make different compounds with unique properties. These compounds can act as preservatives in personal care products to kill bacteria. It can enhance the effectiveness of products like soaps and detergents. Using these products can improve hygiene and be helpful for healthcare.


  • To Prepare Medicine:


Formaldehyde is widely used as a preservative in medical labs and as a sterilizer in vaccines. It’s essential in creating compounds for various kinds of medical devices like pacemakers, artificial heart valves, and prostheses.


  • Application in Science:


Formaldehyde is crucial in scientific fields like biological research, microscopy, and vaccine production. It also helps preserve specimens in zoology and botany museums.


Physical Properties of Formaldehyde:


Formaldehyde is highly toxic, so understanding its physical properties is important. Here are key points to help you grasp its characteristics. Take a look below.


  • It has a strong or pungent odor.
  • Boiling Point: -19 degrees C
  • Melting Point: -92 degrees C
  • Density: 815 kg per cubic meter.
  • Soluble in water and forms a solution.
  • Reacts violently: Hydrogen Peroxide, Nitrogen Oxide


Health Effects:


Formaldehyde poisoning can harm human health. Breathing in low levels can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Higher levels may cause skin rashes and breathing issues like wheezing. It may also cause changes in lung function. Children, elderly individuals, and those with asthma or other breathing problems may be more sensitive to formaldehyde’s effects.


To understand the health impacts of formaldehyde, let’s explore its effects from both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) exposure.


Acute Exposure


Formaldehyde vapor irritates mucous membranes upon exposure. It can be irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat. Swallowing formalin can severely harm the digestive tract. However, the exact way formaldehyde causes toxicity is not yet fully understood. It interacts with molecules in cell membranes, proteins, and DNA while disrupting normal cell functions. 

Below we have highlighted some of the acute exposure effects, take a look to know more.


  • Respiratory


Quick irritation on the nose, throat, or respiratory tract may happen due to low levels of Formaldehyde. Symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, and wheezing can be noticed. Higher exposures can lead to severe inflammation in the lower respiratory tract. It may cause lung inflammation and fluid buildup may be noticed. Children are also susceptible to these effects and may not evacuate exposed areas promptly.

  • Immunologic: 


People who have been sensitized to formaldehyde may experience skin disorders, asthma-like symptoms, rare anaphylactic reactions, or, in rare cases, hemolysis from inhaling or touching it. Children, whose immune systems are still developing after birth, may be more vulnerable to certain chemicals.

  • Gastrointestinal: 


Swallowing formaldehyde can severely damage the stomach, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, stomach inflammation, and ulcers. It is quickly absorbed and can lead to overall body toxicity.

  • Effects on Skin:


Exposure to formaldehyde vapor or formalin solutions can cause skin irritation and burns. Sensitive people may get contact dermatitis even at very low levels.


Chronic Exposure


Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer. Chronic or Long-term exposure can affect the central nervous system. It may cause headaches, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention problems, and memory issues. Chronic exposure may be more serious for children due to their longer potential latency period.


Below are some of the instances, take a quick look.

  • Reproductive Effects: 

There is limited evidence that formaldehyde causes reproductive issues. Reports of menstrual disorders in exposed women and effects on sperm in animals exist but are controversial. Formaldehyde is not proven to cause birth defects in humans or animals at safe levels, though it has genotoxic properties. Pregnant women exposed to formaldehyde should seek medical advice.


  • Carcinogenicity:


 According to the Department of Health and Human Services, formaldehyde is likely to be a carcinogen. In humans, it is weakly linked to nasal cancer and rats that breathed in formaldehyde for a long time developed nasal tumors.


Standards and Guidelines:


OSHA is strict about worker safety and has set standards for handling harmful chemicals. To protect workers from formaldehyde poisoning, it created the Formaldehyde Standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) and similar regulations in states with OSHA-approved plans.


Check out the following points as we have simplified the OSHA guidelines for your better understanding.


  • Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL): The workplace limit for formaldehyde is 0.75 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour average.
  • Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL): The maximum exposure allowed for 15 minutes is 2 ppm.
  • Action Level: Increased monitoring and medical checks are required if formaldehyde levels reach 0.5 ppm over an 8-hour average.


Safety Measures:


Handling formaldehyde poisoning requires knowing the right safety measures. Since many industries use this substance, ensuring worker safety is crucial. OSHA and EPA have set safety guidelines that every employer should follow. Continue reading as we have explained both OSHA and EPA’s requirements which must be followed by each facility. 


Keep reading to learn about the requirements from both OSHA and EPA that every facility must follow.

According to OSHA employers must do the following:


  • Identify and Monitor: 


Perform initial monitoring to pinpoint all workers potentially exposed to formaldehyde at or above the action level or STEL. Assessing their exposure levels is crucial.


  • Reassign Affected Workers: 


             Move workers experiencing severe adverse effects from formaldehyde exposure to positions with reduced or no exposure until their condition improves, for up to six months.


  • Engineering Controls: 

Use practical engineering and work practice controls to keep workers exposed to formaldehyde within the 8-hour TWA and the STEL limits. All workers should be provided with respirators, if these methods fail to sufficiently lower exposure.


  • Labeling Requirements: 

Label any mixtures or solutions containing over 0.1 percent formaldehyde. It applies to any materials emitting formaldehyde at concentrations of 0.1 ppm or higher. For materials that release formaldehyde above 0.5 ppm, include the warning “potential cancer hazard.”


  • Training: 

Training should be provided to workers exposed to formaldehyde concentrations of 0.1 ppm or greater at the time of initial job assignment. Additional training is required whenever new exposure is introduced. Also, repeat training annually.


  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): 

Choose, supply, and upkeep suitable PPE. It includes waterproof clothing, gloves, aprons, and chemical splash goggles to protect against skin and eye contact with formaldehyde.


  • Emergency Equipment: 

 Showers and eyewash stations are essential if there is a likelihood of formaldehyde splashing.


EPA’s Initiatives to Provide Protection from Formaldehyde Exposure:


  • The EPA has implemented a regulation to cap formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. It has also created a certification program to verify compliance by wood panel manufacturers. 

  • The EPA is actively enforcing various statutes related to formaldehyde to ensure safety and compliance.

  • The EPA continuously researches to improve understanding of how various levels of formaldehyde exposure affect human health.


Accident Reports on Formaldehyde at Workplaces by OSHA:


OSHA keeps a comprehensive record of workplace accidents due to chemical exposure. This helps them investigate incidents thoroughly and impose penalties if employer negligence is found. Here are some highlighted reports you should know to understand the risks of formaldehyde poisoning.


1) Chemical Burns: 


On February 1, 2022,  two employees suffered chemical burns while pouring paraformaldehyde into an ammonia solution. The report reveals that one of them was hospitalized.


2) Exposure to Formaldehyde: 


On August 17, 2001, four employees started using a new product after a process change. After 2 hours they began feeling chest tightness, coughing, shortness of breath, and headaches. One of the employees was taken to the hospital by the supervisor, while the others drove themselves. They were diagnosed with chemical lung inflammation and low oxygen levels.


3) Exposure to Formalin Vapor: 


On May 3, 1991, a spill of formalin occurred in the hospital’s dirty instrument room. An employee who was tasked with cleaning it up started experiencing nose and throat irritation from the formalin vapors. About an hour later, she began feeling dizzy and intoxicated. She was taken to an emergency room and later sent home, where she suffered from headache and hangover-like symptoms for the next two days. During the investigation, it was found that she had not received proper training on handling hazards or been provided with personal protective equipment for dealing with formaldehyde. 



Formaldehyde poisoning shouldn’t be feared but approached with caution and knowledge. Facilities handling it must remain vigilant to protect their employees and ensure proper training. With these measures in place, harmful effects from this substance can be effectively mitigated in the workplace.