Formaldehyde is a chemical compound that is widely used in industrial manufacturing and a number of other industries. Many people are familiar with it in the form of formalin, an aqueous solution of formaldehyde that is used as an embalming preservative. This chemical is toxic, known to cause cancer and a variety of other health problems, and for this reason, most people make an effort to avoid it.
This chemical is the simplest of the aldehydes, chemical compounds that include a terminal carbonyl group. A carbonyl group is a group of atoms that includes a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom; the chemical formula for formaldehyde is HCHO, making it a useful building block for other, more complex aldehydes. Pure formaldehyde is a colorless gaseous compound, and it is extremely reactive. For this reason, it is often mixed into other chemical compounds to form a stable substance.
In addition to being used in things like glues, preservatives, antiseptics, resins, paints, film processing, and embalming, formaldehyde is also abundant in the atmosphere. It is one of the many byproducts of combustion, and it is also formed through atmospheric reactions, making it a major component of smog. As a result, it can be a challenge to avoid it.
High levels of exposure can lead to cancer in the long term, and respiratory problems, skin conditions, and inflammation of the mucus membranes in the short term. Allergies to formaldehyde can also cause serious health problems. This chemical is especially dangerous for children.
Most nations have clear laws that dictate the amount of formaldehyde that can be used in things like housing materials, but it can also be generated through fuel burning stoves, It is also found in cheaply constructed “temporary” structures, thanks to the relaxation of safety standards for such buildings.
The issue of formaldehyde exposure was brought to the forefront in the United States in 2007, when several media outlets broke the story that temporary trailers erected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for victims of Hurricane Katrina had extremely high levels of formaldehyde. The chemical has also been found in temporary structures on school campuses and in many older homes. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that people can reduce the risk of exposure by using dehumidifiers and ventilating structures, especially those with fuel burning stoves and heaters, although structures with high levels of ambient formaldehyde should be renovated or destroyed.