“Formaldehyde-Free” – probably not….

Formaldehyde is an organic compound with the formula CH2O or HCHO. It is the simplest aldehyde, hence its systematic name methanal and is water soluble. The common name of the substance comes from its similarity and relation to formic acid. At room temperature formaldehyde is colorless and has a characteristic pungent, irritating odor. It is an important precursor to many other materials and chemical compounds. Commercial solutions of formaldehyde in water, commonly called “formol or formalin”, were formerly used as disinfectants (yep, it’s a wart zapper) and for preservation of biological specimens (ewwww….let us not forget about its use in embalming corpses). Other such uses include and are not limited to drug testing to identify alkaloids like morphine, and in low concentrations for processing color negative film. In 2005, annual world production of formaldehyde was estimated to be 8.7 million tons.  However, in view of its widespread use, toxicity and volatility, exposure to formaldehyde is closely viewed and its effects on human health. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), changed the listing status of formaldehyde from “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” to “known to be a human carcinogen”.  Recent studies have also shown a positive correlation between exposure to formaldehyde and the development of leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia. The theory of carcinogenesis was proposed in 1978. Formaldehyde inhalation has also shown to cause oxidative stress and inflammation in animals. In humans, the ingestion of formaldehyde has been shown to cause vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness and in extreme cases can cause death. A scary reality is that formaldehyde-based materials are essential to the manufacturing of many items like automobiles, transmission components, electrical systems, engine blocks, door panels, axles and brake shoes. Ladies, it is also an important component in nail-hardeners but in regulated amounts. I guess you can say it’s everywhere and you’ll more than likely come in contact with it at least once during your daily routine A formaldehyde-free day is most likely not going to happen.  The three products that emit the highest concentrations of formaldehyde are medium density fiberboard, hardwood plywood and particle board. It is also naturally present in many common food items such as fruits (apples and bananas), vegetables (cucumbers and cauliflower), fish or shellfish, and in higher amounts in beef and pork, and lower amounts in poultry (I’ll take a stand for the cluck-cluck any day). It can also be found in soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and coffee. In some seafood species, formaldehyde is a natural breakdown product of a chemical known as trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) that exists in their bodies. TMAO oxide breaks down into formaldehyde and dimethylamine in equal parts after the animal dies. More importantly, most producers of formaldehyde are concerned with satisfying captive requirements for derivatives or supplying it to local merchants since it is a simple chemical to make. But because of its stability problems it is usually produced close to the point of consumption.  In addition, because of its stability issues the world trade for formaldehyde is minimal. Past studies show that world consumption of formaldehyde is forecasted to grow at an annual rate of almost 5% from 2011 to 2016 and largely as a result of increased production of wood panels, laminates, MDI and pentaerythritol.  China is the largest single market for formaldehyde accounting for almost 34% of the world demand for this chemical. Other large markets include the USA, Belgium and Russia. Astonishing enough, the sales value of formaldehyde and its derivatives was over $145 billion in 2003 (…that amount of loot could possibly end world hunger). On July 7, 2010 the President signed into law an amendment to the Toxic Substance Control act that set limits on formaldehyde emission from wood products. There are currently 178 producers of formaldehyde listed in the DWCP.  To learn more about the DWCP click here.