What are the Different Formaldehyde Effects?

Vanessa Harvey

Formaldehyde effects include a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat that might be accompanied by coughing, sneezing, wheezing, nausea and watering of the eyes. These signs and symptoms are experienced to various degrees depending on how sensitive a person is to formaldehyde exposure. Other formaldehyde effects include skin irritation, vomiting, severe pain in various parts of the body and the manifestation of signs and symptoms of having consumed enough alcohol to cause intoxication.

A person cutting particle board, which contains formaldehyde.
A person cutting particle board, which contains formaldehyde.

The formaldehyde effects experienced might differ slightly based on the form to which an individual is exposed. For example, in its original state, formaldehyde is a colorless gas with an odor strong enough to cause suffocation, but the gas is commonly mixed with an alcohol to produce a liquid form known as formalin. Exposure specifically to the gas causes the eyes, nose and throat to burn because the mucous membranes are irritated, and exposure to formalin usually causes vomiting and severe pain.

Cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde.
Cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde.

People experiencing formaldehyde effects generally are advised to suspect possible exposure to it, because the substance is found in a large variety of products. Building materials, especially pressed wood products such as particle board used to make furniture, wall paneling and counter tops, might contain formaldehyde. A number of personal care products such as cosmetics, products constructed from plastic or paper, many fertilizers and chemical dyes such as hair coloring also can cause formaldehyde effects. This is why the instructions on packages of hair dyes usually advise doing an allergy test before dyeing one's hair. If the user has a formaldehyde allergy, he or she could have an allergic reaction to the cosmetic that contains it.

Some people do not believe in conducting formaldehyde allergy tests but rather in complete avoidance of the toxic substance no matter whether a person is sensitive to it. Laboratory rats that were exposed to formaldehyde developed cancer, particularly nasal cancer, and studies have shown that anatomists, embalmers and other workers in the funeral industry have a high risk of developing leukemia and lung cancer. Nasopharangeal cancer also figures on the list of formaldehyde effects.

A knowledge of the sources of formaldehyde exposure or emissions is very helpful in reducing the probability of formaldehyde effects. Cigarette smoke is poisonous and carcinogenic partly because it contains substances such as formaldehyde and greatly deteriorates indoor air quality. To completely eliminate this source, smoking and second-hand smoke should be avoided indoors or outdoors. People who suspect that they are exposed to formaldehyde in their home can contact their local health department or government health agency.

Formaldehyde may be used as an embalming preservative.
Formaldehyde may be used as an embalming preservative.

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