Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas that lacks color but which has a pungent odor. The gas is produced and emitted into the air by animals and certain human activities such as smoking, using gas stoves, and driving motor vehicles. Formaldehyde emission also results from its inclusion in household items such as disinfectants and furniture. Emission levels can be controlled to some degree by regulating temperature, humidity, and air flow.
A volatile organic compound (VOC) is an item that readily produces emissions from solids or liquids at room temperature. Formaldehyde is included in this group, which is regulated in the United States and many other countries. Regulation does not generally prohibit the use of VOCs, but rather dictates the amount of gas that can be emitted.
Formaldehyde is widely used and can be found in building materials, clothing, and cleaning supplies. Significant concern about formaldehyde emission levels in the US is generally noted to date back to the 1980s. One issue that raised these concerns was the discovery that large amounts of the gas were found in mobile trailers and prefabricated homes. Technology and manufacturing methods have both improved since that time but the formaldehyde emissions have not disappeared and are not limited to those structures.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the use of urea-formaldehyde resins in pressed wood products, such as particleboard and medium density fiberboard used in cabinetry and furniture, are the most significant sources of indoor formaldehyde emission. Formaldehyde is also used in outdoor pressed wood products, such as strand board. The irony is that the outdoor products, which have more ventilation, tend to have lower formaldehyde emission levels than the indoor products, which are used in areas with substantially less air flow.
Several factors can affect the levels of formaldehyde emission. First, the age of the item matters because older products produce less gas than newer products. The amount of humidity and the temperature also have an effect. Higher temperatures and abundant humidity result in increased emission levels.
Creating barriers can help reduce formaldehyde emission levels. This is done by applying products such as high pressure laminates or epoxy sealers over products that emit the gas. All materials used as covering barriers do not work equally well. It should also be noted that the effectiveness of this measure is dependent on how thoroughly a product is applied.
One reason formaldehyde emission levels are regulated is because there are possibilities of adverse effects from exposure. Irritation of the eyes and throat can occur. Emissions can cause nausea, inhibit breathing, and trigger asthma. A person can experience allergic reactions, including skin rashes. Even more concerning is the likelihood that at sufficient levels, formaldehyde is a carcinogen.
There are numerous environmental pollutants that are of greater concern than formaldehyde. This does not mean, however, that it is harmless. Exposure can have adverse effects on animals, such as causing low birth rates. One major way to help protect the environment from the effects of this gas is by reducing the amount of combustible fuel sources that are used.