Formaldehyde: It’s Found Everywhere

There is renewed concern for the quality of indoor air both in the workplace and the home environments. Many indoor air contaminants – including formaldehyde – can pose serious human health risks. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong, pungent odor. It is used to make resins, glues, adhesives, textiles and other chemicals, as well as disinfectants, fertilizers and embalming solutions. It can be found in cabinets, plywood, oriented strandboard (OSB), particleboard, laminate flooring, permanent press fabric (typically those used for curtains, drapes, etc.), and other common products. Formaldehyde is found in nature, caused by anthropomorphic activities such as forest fires and volcanoes, at concentrations of 0.2 to 6 parts per billion (ppb). Rural areas typically have lower concentrations than urban ones. Its manufacture and use in many common building products, along with energy-efficient buildings, means formaldehyde that offgases from products can remained trapped in homes – thus increasing indoor human exposure over the years, with some homes exceeding 500 ppb 1.

Formaldehyde Exposure

At low exposure levels, symptoms can include eye, nose, mouth and throat irritation. Formaldehyde has also been identified as a human carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). However, this is typically documented at higher levels of exposure over long periods of time.

Symptoms of formaldehyde exposure vary widely on the sensitivity of the individual. Initial symptoms have been documented at as low as 100 ppb. This is well below the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 750 ppb as an eight-hour time weighted average (TWA) and a ceiling of 2,000 ppb for up to 15 minutes. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Heath (NIOSH), a sister agency under DHHS formed to develop data used to promulgate standards for OSHA, has a Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) of 16 ppb as a 10-hour TWA. NIOSH and OSHA are tasked with protecting workers in the workplace. There are no federal standards for the indoor environment; however some states have created their own. California has developed an REL of 7 ppb for chronic exposure – slightly above outdoor background levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a recommended limit of 83 ppb for indoor environments.

Formaldehyde concentrations are typically higher in new construction for several reasons. First, new construction is typically more air tight than older construction. Higher amounts of insulation, more efficient heating systems, and triple-track windows all reduce the amount of fresh air that enters a house. In newer construction it is important to insure there is sufficient fresh air to dilute potential indoor air contaminants. Another factor that causes higher formaldehyde concentrations are the amounts of new construction materials and insulation that off-gases formaldehyde – that can take more than two years to dissipate 2. Anything made with press board or laminate wood has the potential to be a source of formaldehyde. Although the Environmental Protection Agency is enforcing new formaldehyde standards effective June 1, 2018 for these types of products, the standard allows emissions up to 130 ppb.

Reducing Exposure Risk

Some steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of exposure include: purchasing solid wood furniture, cabinetry or flooring made without urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues; using only pressed-wood products that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no added formaldehyde (NAF) requirements; and using only products labeled “No VOC/Low VOC” (volatile organic compound). In addition, steps can be taken to reduce formaldehyde from new products by washing permanent-press fabrics before using and letting new products off-gas outside the working/ living space before being brought inside – ideally until they no longer emit a chemical smell.

What should be done if formaldehyde is suspected to be the source of air quality symptoms? The first step is to vent air from the living space, boost air circulation, and increase fresh outside air into the space by opening the windows or through other HVAC methods. Reducing the temperature may help reduce formaldehyde offgassing, thereby lowering the indoor air concentration.

A qualified indoor air professional, such as a Certified Industrial Hygienist, can help determine the source(s) of potential formaldehyde or other indoor air contamination and the best steps to mitigate exposure. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that the following be asked of anyone presenting themselves as an indoor air quality (IAQ) professional:

  • Have they performed similar jobs, and what were the outcomes?
  • Will they include a written report, including recommendations, with the data?
  • Do they have client references with similar IAQ issues?
  • Do they have certifications and/or memberships in IAQ-related organizations such as the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, the American Indoor Air Quality Council, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals or the Indoor Air Quality Association?

HETI…Indoor Air Quality Services

HETI has a staff of IAQ professionals that can assist in identifying and evaluating indoor air quality issues – including formaldehyde. We have the experience and technical expertise to assist with hazard recognition, exposure monitoring, and methods to best mitigate contaminants to restore indoor air quality.


1 Godish, T., “Indoor Air Pollution Control” (1989)
2 Park, J.S., Ikeda, K., Variations of Formaldehyde and VOC Levels during Three Years in New and Older Homes, Indoor Air (April 2006)

To find out more about this and other HETI industrial hygiene services, please contact us.

Mark Hasting, CIH, CSP
Senior Environmental Scientist, EHS Practice
Phone: 732.567.9844