What you should know about formaldehyde

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On June 17, a national flooring retailer announced it had reached a settlement in a lawsuit made against it by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. The action was concerning the retailer's use of laminate wood flooring products that contained formaldehyde and potentially caused a number of health issues in households where they were installed. Millions of square feet of the flooring have been removed from homes and disposed of.

This is just the latest big case of the problems surrounding formaldehyde, a common chemical whose health impacts are still not completely understood. What is known is that formaldehyde presents a health risk to many, and steps are currently being taken by many home builders throughout the U.S. to cease production of items containing the chemical.

According to the American Cancer Society, formaldehyde was used extensively in a special form of home insulation called urea-formaldehyde foam, or UFFI. The chemical also was used before and since that time to treat pressed wood products. However, concerns surrounding the use of formaldehyde soon began to surface.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance, and it has long been manufactured by people for use as an industrial disinfectant. In high doses, formaldehyde can be extremely harmful to the skin, eyes and lungs. However, concentrations needed to produce these reactions are not normally present in homebuilding materials. Instead, small yet significant amounts of formaldehyde may seep into the air and cause respiration problems for some sensitive people, including asthmatics. Formaldehyde can also be present in some carpet backing products, typically manufactured in the 1970s. It is also found in cigarette smoke, durable-press drapes, glue and gas from stoves.

Risks of formaldehyde
The exact risk of formaldehyde-containing products is still not fully known, although it has generally fallen out of wide use in America. The National Association of Certified Home Inspectors noted that in 1992, the California Air Resources Board listed formaldehyde as a "toxic air contaminant," and banned it from household or construction use. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the chemical as a carcinogen in humans. The American Cancer Society has not definitely determined that formaldehyde exposure causes cancer, but noted that some evidence suggests there is a link.

A professional home inspection may be a good way to determine the risk of formaldehyde exposure in the home. A trained home inspector can check the insulation and carpeting of a home to determine if it may potentially be made with formaldehyde-related products. Laminate wood flooring may also be a source of formaldehyde, so this should be thoroughly inspected. 

A home inspector may use a form of air quality analysis to determine the level of formaldehyde exposure. The chemical is present in the air at all times, since it is naturally occurring. Higher than normal levels of formaldehyde, however, could indicate the presence of a contaminant.

To reduce exposure to formaldehyde if something containing it is present in the home, residents should use air conditioning in conjunction with a dehumidifier to keep temperatures and relative humidity low. In these conditions, the chemical is less likely to leech into the air. Homeowners should be sure to always use exterior-grade pressed wood products. These flooring materials contain phenol resin rather than formaldehyde containing urea, making them a safer choice for sensitive individuals. Finally, be sure to seal off items that contain the substance with special paint, varnish or other coating applications.

Formaldehyde is just one of the many risks we deal with daily. Fortunately, it's possible to reduce and eliminate exposure to it in the home.