Formaldehyde Effects: Considerations for Humans and the Environment

by | Jun 10, 2024 | Chemical Injury, Formaldehyde Exposure, Personal Injury, Product Liability, Workplace Injuries, Workplace Safety

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas with a strong odor, widely used in various industrial processes and household products. Despite its versatility, formaldehyde exposure poses significant risks to human health and the environment. Understanding that formaldehyde effects us is crucial for mitigating the potential dangers associated with this ubiquitous chemical.

At Kherkher Garcia, we have explored some of the lawsuits and legal matters related to formaldehyde exposure in our blog. Below, our chemical injury lawyers want to provide a more general guide to how formaldehyde affects humans and the environment, and why it is so important for manufacturers and safety regulators to protect consumers and workers from this toxic chemical.

Formaldehyde in the Environment

Formaldehyde is released into the environment through both natural and anthropogenic sources. Natural sources include forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and the decomposition of organic matter. However, the bulk of environmental formaldehyde comes from human activities. Industrial processes, automobile exhaust, and the off-gassing from building materials and household products contribute significantly to formaldehyde pollution.

In the atmosphere, formaldehyde participates in complex chemical reactions, contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone and secondary organic aerosols, which are key components of smog. These pollutants can deteriorate air quality, posing risks to both human health and the ecosystem. Formaldehyde can also deposit onto soil and water surfaces, where it undergoes further chemical transformations or is broken down by microorganisms. Although it degrades relatively quickly in the environment, continuous emissions can lead to sustained high concentrations, especially in urban and industrial areas.

Health Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure

Formaldehyde exposure can cause a range of illnesses in humans, depending on the severity and duration of exposure. Consider the following:

Short-Term Exposure

Short-term exposure to formaldehyde, typically at high levels, can cause acute health effects. Inhalation of formaldehyde vapor can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Burning sensations
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

In more severe cases, it can trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate existing respiratory conditions. Skin contact with formaldehyde solutions can cause dermatitis, characterized by redness, itching, and blistering.

Long-Term Exposure

Chronic exposure to formaldehyde, even at lower levels, is associated with more serious health concerns. Prolonged inhalation of formaldehyde has been linked to:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Asthma
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Headaches
  • Mood impairment
  • Memory problems

There is also substantial evidence that long-term exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it is carcinogenic to humans. Epidemiological studies have shown a correlation between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia.

Vulnerable Populations

Certain populations are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde effects are most dangerous for the following groups:

  • Workers in industries that manufacture or use formaldehyde, such as furniture production, textile manufacturing, and embalming, are at a higher risk due to occupational exposure.
  • Children are also more susceptible to the effects of formaldehyde. Children’s respiratory systems are still developing, making them more prone to irritation and asthma-like symptoms.
  • Older people, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, can experience exacerbated symptoms even at lower exposure levels.

Formaldehyde-Related Lawsuits

There have been many lawsuits regarding formaldehyde, including several notable lawsuits involving harm to humans. Some of the more notable lawsuits include:

Product Liability Lawsuits:

  • Lumber Liquidators: This is a well-known case from 2015 where the company faced a class-action lawsuit for allegedly selling laminate flooring that emitted high levels of formaldehyde [ lawsuits against lumber liquidators for formaldehyde].
  • Johnson & Johnson: In 2021, a lawsuit was filed against the company alleging that their hair care products containing formaldehyde caused scalp damage and hair loss [Johnson & Johnson formaldehyde lawsuit].

Workplace Injury Lawsuits:

  • American Airlines (2017): Over 400 flight attendants sued Twin Hill, the uniform maker, alleging formaldehyde exposure. In October 2023, a jury awarded $1 million+ to four attendants, potentially setting a precedent.
  • Other Airlines (Alaska, Southwest): Similar lawsuits were filed against airlines and uniform suppliers, with mixed results.

These lawsuits represent only a few examples of how formaldehyde affects humans, their health and wellbeing. There are countless stories involving harm to consumers and workers who have been exposed to formaldehyde unnecessary.

Environmental Impact

Formaldehyde’s impact on the environment extends beyond its role in air pollution. In aquatic systems, formaldehyde can be toxic to fish and other marine life. It interferes with cellular function and can cause respiratory distress in aquatic organisms. While formaldehyde breaks down relatively quickly in water, continuous input from industrial effluents and runoff can maintain harmful concentrations.

Terrestrial ecosystems are not immune to formaldehyde’s effects. High concentrations can inhibit plant growth and reduce biodiversity in affected areas. Plants exposed to formaldehyde may exhibit symptoms such as leaf chlorosis, necrosis, and stunted growth. Soil microorganisms, essential for nutrient cycling and soil health, can also be adversely affected, leading to imbalances in the ecosystem.

Mitigation and Regulation

Given the widespread use of formaldehyde and its associated risks, regulatory measures are essential to control exposure levels. Many countries have established occupational exposure limits (OELs) to protect workers. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.75 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour workday, with a short-term exposure limit (STEL) of 2 ppm for a 15-minute period.

In residential settings, formaldehyde emissions from building materials and consumer products are regulated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established standards for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, which are commonly used in furniture and flooring. These regulations aim to reduce indoor air pollution and protect public health.

Individuals can also take steps to minimize their exposure to formaldehyde. Ventilating homes, especially during and after the installation of new building materials or furniture, can help reduce indoor formaldehyde levels. Using air purifiers with activated carbon filters can also be effective. Additionally, choosing products labeled as low-emitting or formaldehyde-free can significantly decrease exposure risks.

Research and Future Directions

Ongoing research is crucial to further understand the health and environmental impacts of formaldehyde. Advances in analytical techniques allow for more precise measurement of formaldehyde concentrations in various media, aiding in the assessment of exposure and risk. Additionally, research into alternative materials and chemicals that can replace formaldehyde in industrial applications is essential for reducing its environmental footprint.

Innovations in biotechnology also offer promising solutions. Engineered microorganisms capable of degrading formaldehyde more efficiently could be used in bioremediation efforts to clean up contaminated sites. Such approaches could mitigate the adverse effects of formaldehyde on ecosystems and enhance environmental sustainability.

Important Things to Know about Formaldehyde

Here are some important things to know about formaldehyde:

  • Exposure is common: Formaldehyde is found in many household products and building materials, so low-level exposure is quite common.
  • Short-term effects can be irritating: Eye, nose, and throat irritation are the most frequent effects, especially for those with sensitivities.
  • Long-term effects can be serious: Chronic exposure has been linked to respiratory problems, skin issues, and potentially some cancers.
  • Levels matter: The risk of health problems increases with the level and duration of exposure.
  • Children and older people are more at risk: Their developing bodies or respiratory vulnerabilities make them more susceptible.
  • Good ventilation is key: Increasing ventilation helps reduce indoor formaldehyde concentrations.
  • Source control is ideal: If possible, identify and remove the source of formaldehyde, such as certain furniture or building materials.
  • Check product labels: Look for low-formaldehyde options when purchasing furniture or building materials.
  • Be aware of regulations: OSHA and NIOSH set guidelines for safe workplace exposure limits [OSHA formaldehyde] [NIOSH formaldehyde].

If you are concerned about formaldehyde exposure in your home or workplace, it is wise to test for it using commercially available air quality test kits. You can also consult a healthcare professional if you are experiencing health problems you suspect might be related to formaldehyde.

What to Do if You Suspect a Formaldehyde-Related Illness

If you or a loved one have been exposed to formaldehyde and are experiencing symptoms that may be related to how formaldehyde affects human health, it is crucial to take immediate action. Contact a law firm experienced in handling formaldehyde-related cases to understand your rights and explore potential compensation.

At Kherkher Garcia, we specialize in representing victims of formaldehyde exposure and other forms of chemical injuries. We understand the complexities of these cases and are committed to securing the compensation you deserve for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Call us at 713-333-1030 or complete our online contact form to schedule your free, no-obligation consultation. Let us help you navigate the legal process and fight for your rights.

Image by on Freepik

Schedule a free Consultation

Steve Kherkher

Steve Kherkher

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Steve Kherkher. Steve has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 30 years. He has won $300 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been catastrophically injured.

Learn moreRead more articles