Formaldehyde, a preservative one may remember from high school chemistry class. It is a naturally occurring substance that's also produced by our bodies. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in air and some foods and products. Low levels can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat while high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers. Workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have been known to develop nose and throat cancers. It has been known to trigger asthma attacks in children. Furthermore, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found a link between formaldehyde exposure and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that has a distinct pungent odor. It dissolves in water but easily dissipates. Airborne formaldehyde can break down to form formic acid and carbon monoxide and therefore smog is a major source of formaldehyde exposure. It is used in the production of fertilizers, paper, plywood , particle board and foam insulation. It is a preservative for some foods, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics and leather. It is also applied to fabrics so that it shrinks less, prevents staining and resists wrinkling. Free or unreacted, excess formaldehyde can be inhaled, ingested or dermally absorbed to cause the health hazards that agencies report.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that adults not drink water containing more than 1 milligram of formaldehyde per liter of water (1 mg/L) for a lifetime exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure level of 0.75 parts per million for an 8-hour workday, within a 40-hour work week.
Worldwide efforts to set limits on free formaldehyde have been made to avoid hazardous exposure. Various countries in Europe have regulations limiting free formaldehyde in clothing as follows:
- In babies clothing (for children less than 24 months old) no more than 20 mg/kg.
- Textiles that are in direct contact with skin during use cannot contain more than 100 mg/kg.
- Textiles that are not directly in contact with skin have a limit of 300 mg/kg.
Japan has the strictest regulation which limits free formaldehyde on clothing for adults and children above 24 months of age to 75 ppm. The limit for clothing intended for babies is lower.
The United States requires the following limits:
- 20 mg/kg for children under 36 months of age
- 75 mg/kg for all other textiles used with direct skin contact
- 300 mg/kg for all other textiles not subject to direct skin contact.
However, the above mentioned limits are voluntary standards.
Germany and Austria recommends labeling textiles subject to direct skin contact if such textiles are known to contain more than 1500 ppm of formaldehyde. The label appears both in English and German as follows: Contains formaldehyde. Washing this garment is recommended prior to first time use in order to avoid irritation of the skin.
One can limit exposure to free formaldehyde by:
- Promoting good indoor air circulation: Indoor sources of formaldehyde are carpets, drapes, adhesives used in plywood and furniture, insulating foam, and cigarette smoke. It's not surprising that high levels of exposure to free formaldehyde occur indoors than outdoors.
- Do not use unvented kerosene heaters.
- Wash garments prior to use: Chemicals that impart wrinkle resistance properties should be properly "fixed" or cured on to fabrics with the right combination of temperature, pressure and time of application. Unfixed or free formaldehyde can be laundered off the cured fabrics.
- Read product labels and purchase household chemicals and cosmetics that are formaldehyde-free.