Understanding Formaldehyde Health Effects

by | Dec 7, 2023 | Formaldehyde Exposure, Personal Injury, Product Liability, Safety, Workplace Safety

Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly used chemicals with a wide variety of uses. While it is a useful compound, it is also incredibly hazardous to human health. Formaldehyde health effects can have a tremendous and long-lasting impact on those exposed. It is important to be aware of the risks and potential hazards of formaldehyde exposure, as it can occur in unexpected ways.

Below, the chemical injury attorneys at Kherkher Garcia break down formaldehyde, its common uses, health effects, and when it may be time to see legal help.

The Chemical Composition of Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde, with the chemical formula CH2O, is a simple organic compound that plays a vital role in various industries and applications. However, it also possesses potential health risks that require awareness and cautious handling.


  • Physical: Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas with a pungent odor. It readily dissolves in water and exists primarily as a hydrate (CH2(OH)2) in aqueous solutions.
  • Chemical: Formaldehyde is the simplest aldehyde, characterized by the presence of a carbonyl group (C=O) bonded to a hydrogen atom. This reactive group makes it highly versatile and readily participates in chemical reactions.


  • Building Materials: Formaldehyde is widely used in the production of composite wood products like plywood, particleboard, and MDF. It acts as a binding agent and provides structural integrity.
  • Household Products: Formaldehyde is present in various household products, including adhesives, paints, cosmetics, and disinfectants.
  • Medical Applications: Formaldehyde serves as a disinfectant and sterilizing agent in medical settings and laboratories. It also plays a role in preserving biological specimens.
  • Industrial Applications: Formaldehyde is used in the production of various chemicals, plastics, textiles, and dyes.

Health Risks:

  • Exposure: The primary route of exposure to formaldehyde is through inhalation, but it can also occur through skin contact and ingestion.
  • Effects: Short-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
  • Regulations: Various regulatory agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have established guidelines for safe exposure limits to formaldehyde.

How are Most People Exposed to Formaldehyde?

People can be exposed to formaldehyde through various sources in their environment. Some common ways individuals might encounter formaldehyde include:

  • Indoor Air Quality: Formaldehyde can be emitted from certain building materials, furnishings, and household products. Plywood, particleboard, pressed-wood products (like furniture and cabinets), carpets, glues, and certain insulation materials may release formaldehyde gas over time.
  • Tobacco Smoke: Cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde, exposing both smokers and those around them to this chemical.
  • Occupational Exposure: Workers in industries such as manufacturing, construction, healthcare, laboratories, and funeral services where formaldehyde is used in products or processes may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde if proper safety measures are not in place.
  • Household Products: Some cleaning agents, cosmetics, and personal care products might contain or release formaldehyde.
  • Clothing: Some clothing and textiles are treated with formaldehyde to aid in durability and wrinkle-resistance.
  • Automobile Exhaust: Formaldehyde is present in vehicle emissions, particularly in areas with heavy traffic congestion.
  • Medical and Laboratory Settings: Formaldehyde is used in laboratories as a preservative and in medical settings for certain procedures and treatments, potentially leading to exposure among healthcare professionals and patients.

It is important to note that exposure levels can vary widely depending on the source and duration of exposure. Taking measures to reduce exposure, such as ensuring proper ventilation, using products labeled as low-emission or formaldehyde-free, and following safety guidelines in occupational settings, can help minimize the risk associated with formaldehyde exposure.

Formaldehyde Health Effects

Exposure to formaldehyde can lead to several health effects, depending on the level and duration of exposure. Some of the potential health effects of formaldehyde exposure include:

Nose and Throat Issues

Even if you never smell formaldehyde, there is potential for the chemical to affect your nose and throat. Common nose and throat issues reported after formaldehyde exposure, or due to poisoning, include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Blocked sinuses
  • Sneezing
  • Stinging, burning, or itching

Respiratory Issues

Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system. Symptoms may include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Asthma

Skin Irritation

Direct contact with formaldehyde or its fumes can cause skin irritation, including:

  • Dermatitis
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Rashes
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Blisters

Neurological Risk

Exposure to formaldehyde can cause neurological effects, such as:

  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Attention deficit
  • Nausea
  • Mood changes
  • Dexterity and equilibrium impairment
  • Memory problems

Allergic Reactions

Some individuals may develop allergic reactions upon exposure to formaldehyde, leading to symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, and skin sensitivities.

Asthma Exacerbation

People with asthma may experience worsened symptoms and increased frequency of attacks when exposed to formaldehyde.

Cancer Risk

Prolonged or high-level exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly cancers of the nose and throat. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

Long-term Health Effects

Chronic exposure to formaldehyde may lead to respiratory issues, chronic bronchitis, and other long-term health problems.

What are the Most Common Symptoms of Formaldehyde Poisoning?

Formaldehyde poisoning or acute formaldehyde exposure can lead to various symptoms, depending on the level and duration of exposure. Some of the most common symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning include:

  • Respiratory Irritation: Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause irritation in the respiratory system, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, sore throat, and difficulty breathing.
  • Eye and Nasal Irritation: Formaldehyde exposure often leads to irritation in the eyes, causing redness, itching, watery eyes, and a burning sensation. It can also cause irritation in the nose, leading to sneezing, a runny nose, and nasal congestion.
  • Skin Problems: Direct contact with formaldehyde or its vapors can cause skin irritation, dermatitis, redness, itching, and rashes. Some individuals may develop allergic reactions upon skin contact.
  • Headaches and Dizziness: Exposure to high levels of formaldehyde might lead to headaches, dizziness, and general feelings of malaise.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: In severe cases of exposure, individuals may experience nausea, vomiting, and stomach discomfort.
  • Chest Pain: Prolonged exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause chest pain and respiratory distress.

If someone experiences severe symptoms or shows signs of formaldehyde poisoning, it is essential to seek medical attention immediately. In cases of suspected formaldehyde exposure, removing oneself from the source of exposure and seeking fresh air can help alleviate symptoms. Prompt medical evaluation is crucial, especially in cases of significant exposure or persistent symptoms.

What is the Treatment for Formaldehyde Exposure?

The treatment for formaldehyde exposure depends on the severity of symptoms and the extent of exposure. In cases of mild to moderate exposure where symptoms are mainly irritation or discomfort, the following steps can be taken:

  • Remove from the Source of Exposure: Move away from the area or source of formaldehyde to reduce further exposure.
  • Seek Fresh Air: Ventilate the area by opening windows and using fans to improve air circulation.
  • Wash Skin and Eyes: If formaldehyde comes into contact with the skin or eyes, rinse the affected area thoroughly with water for at least 15 minutes.
  • Symptomatic Relief: Over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or pain relievers, might help alleviate symptoms like itching, pain, or discomfort. Follow the instructions on the medication label or consult a healthcare professional for appropriate guidance.
  • Medical Evaluation: Seek medical attention if symptoms persist, worsen, or if there are signs of severe exposure. Medical professionals may provide further treatment based on the symptoms and severity of exposure.

In cases of severe formaldehyde poisoning or significant exposure leading to severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting, or severe skin or eye irritation, immediate medical attention is essential. Treatment in such cases may involve:

  • Supportive care to manage and stabilize the patient’s condition.
  • Oxygen therapy or breathing assistance in cases of respiratory distress.
  • Intravenous fluids if dehydration or significant exposure has occurred.
  • Medications to address specific symptoms, if necessary.

Upon seeking medical attention, healthcare providers will assess the individual’s condition and provide appropriate treatment based on the symptoms and severity of exposure.

When Can Someone Sue for Formaldehyde Exposure?

Individuals who have suffered harm or health issues due to formaldehyde exposure might consider legal action under certain circumstances. Some situations that may warrant legal action, such as a lawsuit, include:

  • Negligence or Wrongful Actions: Legal action might be considered if there is evidence of negligence or wrongful actions by a party responsible for the exposure. This could include failure to provide adequate safety measures, violation of regulations, or knowingly exposing individuals to harmful levels of formaldehyde without proper warnings or precautions.
  • Product Liability: If exposure occurred due to a defective product, such as furniture or building materials containing excessive levels of formaldehyde, individuals might have grounds for a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer or distributor.
  • Occupational Exposure: Employees who suffer from health issues due to formaldehyde exposure in the workplace might have the option to pursue legal action against their employer if proper safety measures were not in place or if the employer knowingly exposed them to hazardous levels of formaldehyde.

It is crucial to seek legal advice from a qualified attorney knowledgeable about personal injury and/or product liability law if you believe you have suffered harm due to formaldehyde exposure. An attorney can review the details of your case, assess the evidence, and advise you on the options available for seeking compensation or legal recourse.

Contact a Chemical Injury Attorney to Learn More

If you believe that your injuries or illness are related to formaldehyde exposure, a skilled chemical injury attorney can help. At Kherkher Garcia, we have seen formaldehyde health effects drastically impact the lives of victims and their loved ones. Our goal is to fight back and ensure that victims obtain justice and compensation for their injuries and losses.

If you have questions about an illness related to toxic chemicals, call us at 713-333-1030, or complete our contact form for a free consultation. Our chemical injury attorneys have helped numerous clients harmed due to chemical exposure at work, in consumer products, in uniforms, and more.


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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.

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