Formaldehyde: Fear, Facts, and Flooring

formaldehyde-blog

As mentioned last week, as a result of the recent 60 Minutes report on laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators, many people have had questions about formaldehyde in flooring and about formaldehyde itself. There are many people who are understandably angry about receiving product that did not meet the claimed California Air Resource Board Phase 2 (CARB 2) compliance. However, while concern over health and safety is ubiquitous and proper, frequently in our society when uncertainty exists, fear can trump reason. As previously mentioned, depending on the agency, there are multiple standards for formaldehyde in the air which can lead to uncertainty. And when uncertainty exists about chemical safety (especially in the media), fear prevails. Below are many links that help dispel the mystery of formaldehyde and hopefully can aid in peace of mind.

Properties and Safe Levels of Formaldehyde

There are numerous sources to reference for the physical properties of formaldehyde and what constitutes safe levels:

  • The blog Harpocrates Speaks has an article attempting to demystify formaldehyde which is worth a read and extensively cites its sources.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Summary Page on Formaldehyde as well as a Chemical Summary of formaldehyde in relation to child health.
  • The EPA also has a draft of their updated IRIS Toxicological Review of Formaldehyde.

The EPA Formaldehyde Teach Chemical Summary states the primary health concerns are with formaldehyde in its airborne form, but that “Formaldehyde in air is readily broken down by sunlight, with a half-life of approximately 30-50 minutes ” (page 8). In other words, once formaldehyde is emitted from a source it will decay rapidly. The ATSDR TP notes that in humans, “Once absorbed, formaldehyde is very quickly broken down… converted to a non-toxic chemical called formate, which is excreted in the urine… [and] converted to carbon dioxide and breathed out of the body…”

The author of the HS blog observes that:

“A good place to start [with considering Formaldehyde] is to figure out what is the NOAEL, or No Observable Adverse Effect Level. That is the largest dose at which there are no significant adverse effects among those exposed to the substance in question. Thankfully, the EPA has looked at that and extrapolated from animal experiments what a safe level of formaldehyde exposure should be. According to their calculations, a human could consume 0.2 mg/kg [0.2 ppm] of formaldehyde every day, in addition to what their own body produces, without showing any adverse effects, such as weight loss, and that is factoring in a lot of safety buffers; the real safe exposure level is likely around 10-100 times higher than that. But, this is the EPA; they like to play it safe.”

Even with playing it safe, the EPA states that lifetime exposure to 1 parts per million (ppm) “is not expected to cause any adverse effects.” The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has the upper limit at 0.75 ppm per 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. And the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards “are designed to provide an ambient level of 0.4 ppm or less in manufactured housing.”

Effects of Formaldehyde

As mentioned in the ATSDR FAQ: “Nasal and eye irritation, neurological effects, and increased risk of asthma and/or allergy have been observed in humans breathing 0.1 to 0.5 ppm. Eczema and changes in lung function have been observed at 0.6 to 1.9 ppm.” However, as the OECD SIDS states, these symptoms are transient and are reversible “after relatively short periods without exposure” (page 16), such as “within 1-3 hrs” (page 314).

In both the ATSDR TP and EPA reports, laboratory studies (of industrial workers involved with formaldehyde) are cited as conflicting on whether inhalation of high levels formaldehyde causes nose or throat cancers. From the ATSDR TP: “Some studies of humans exposed to lower amounts of formaldehyde in workplace air found more cases of cancer of the nose and throat than expected, but other studies have not found nasopharyngeal cancer in other groups of workers exposed to formaldehyde in air.” However, the consensus among the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and EPA is that formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen based on “…limited evidence in humans and sufficient evidence in laboratory animals.”

One other major concern with formaldehyde is potential effects on children. However, as the ATSDR TP states, it is uncertain whether “irritation would occur at lower concentrations in children than in adults. Studies in animals suggest that formaldehyde will not cause birth defects in humans. Inhaled formaldehyde or formaldehyde applied to the skin is not likely to be transferred from mother to child in breast milk or to reach the developing fetus” (page 5).

Formaldehyde and Flooring

While there are multiple sources to find information about formaldehyde and VOCs, not many are written in as an approachable, common sense manner as Elizabeth Baldwin’s blog on Hardwood Floor Magazine. Since 2010, she has been blogging about various environmental issues including VOCs and formaldehyde. In a six (and a half) part series written in 2010, she addresses what VOCs are and what standards pertained to formaldehyde in flooring (at least in 2010). Since then, she has written on several other topics related to formaldehyde in flooring, including:

Conclusion

So, what should one make of all the information above? How does one make sense of differing standards on small amounts of formaldehyde that may or may not cause health issues? In a post titled “Formaldehyde Comparisons: Let’s Stop Scaring People About Formaldehyde,” the following observations are made that bring formaldehyde into real world context:

  • The standard human body, through natural metabolic processes, generates and disposes of about 45,000 mg every day. This means that a person would have to breath air from CARB 2 particleboard for over 61 YEARS just to equal the amount that a body naturally generates and consumes in 24 hours. (Please pause and reread that figure: 61 years of CARB P2 emissions equals what you, as an average adult, naturally produce every 24 hours. Forget what you eat or breathe – this is what your own body is doing.)
  • The average American “eats” [the equivalent of] at least 10 CARB 2 particleboards a day.
  • Every time a baby exhales, they emit approximately 500 times the proposed level of formaldehyde that is acceptable according to the EPA.

These comparisons of formaldehyde are done with particleboard emissions, which has a CARB 2 limit of 0.09 ppm, while plywood has a limit of 0.05 ppm. So, the next time you have a concern about formaldehyde emissions from laminate or engineered flooring, plywood, or particleboard, just remember that it is almost certainly safer in regards to formaldehyde than your diet, a baby, or you.

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