Most people are surprised to learn that formaldehyde is prevalent in homes and offices. In fact, it’s one of the top indoor air pollutants. Researchers measured indoor formaldehyde and found levels 20 to 200 times higher than outdoor air in urban areas. High concentrations of household formaldehyde are unhealthy, so it’s important to understand the sources of formaldehyde and how to reduce it and other toxins in your home.
But first, it’s vital to get the facts about formaldehyde and your health.
Is Formaldehyde Really Toxic?
Not only is formaldehyde a known human carcinogen, it can also cause other health problems. Typically, formaldehyde is present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts per million (ppm). Outdoor air in urban areas has higher concentrations than rural areas due to car exhaust and other sources. The problem arises when homes or offices have too many formaldehyde-releasing products. When this happens, levels can rise above 0.03 ppm.
If your home or office has formaldehyde-releasing products resulting in formaldehyde at 0.1 to 0.5 ppm, you can suffer neurological effects, asthma and nose and eye irritation. At higher levels (0.6 to 1.9 ppm), you can experience changes in lung function and eczema.
Studies have shown that long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals. Formaldehyde can affect people differently. Some are very sensitive while others may have no reaction. With so few studies completed, it’s unclear if children are more vulnerable than adults. Based on this information, it’s prudent to understand the sources and how to cut formaldehyde levels and other toxins in your home.
For more information, read the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) Formaldehyde Update.
What are the Sources of Formaldehyde
The sources of formaldehyde are varied. Products made with pressed-wood and wood-based products are a significant source. These wood products include hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) that contain UF resins.
Many furniture and cabinet makers use formaldehyde-releasing wood products. Your sofa, kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanity, bed frames, tables, nightstands, and dressers may be emitting formaldehyde. The CPSC reports that emissions from these pressed-wood products decrease after 6-10 months; however, the CPSC does not say how long these products continue to emit at lower levels.
Wallpaper and paint are also sources with moderate levels of formaldehyde for 1-3 months after application. Some types of wood floor finishes may also emit high levels of formaldehyde.
Any type of combustion can produce formaldehyde. Burning wood, kerosene, oil, natural gas, and gasoline are sources. So when you cook using gas or use your gas or wood-burning fireplace, you are creating formaldehyde.
Finally, some items in your home can become re-emitters. Any porous material like carpets and drywall can be a re-emitter. Over time, these porous surfaces can trap formaldehyde and later release it.
How to Reduce Formaldehyde
Shop Smart for Wood Products – Furniture, Cabinets & Flooring
Try to buy solid wood furniture rather than pressed wood furniture to avoid the resins that release formaldehyde. When it’s not practical to buy solid wood, then seal the surfaces of pressed wood completely with a material that doesn’t contain formaldehyde.
If you watched the 60 Minutes expose on laminated wood floors, then you know that certain brands of laminated wood floors can release significant amounts of formaldehyde. Instead of laminate, opt for solid wood floors. If you decide on laminate, follow the EPA recommendations and only buy wood flooring that meets CARB ATCM regulations.
When buying other wood products like particle board, MDF, and plywood, look for products that meet these regulations:
- California Air Resources Board Air Toxics Control Measure (CARB ATCM)
- American National Standards Institute (ANSI):
- Particle board should conform to A208.1-2009 or CARB ATCM
- MDF should conform to A208.2-2009 or CARB ATCM
- Hardwood Plywood should conform to ANSI/HPVA HP-1-2009 or CARB ATCM
These regulations ensure that your wood products are healthier for you and your family.
Choose Paints Wisely & Skip the Wallpaper
For healthier indoor air, you may want to forego using wallpaper since the paper and glue can release harmful VOCs. Fortunately, you don’t have to compromise on indoor paint. Zero VOC paints are now widely available at your local home improvement store. While paints labeled “Low VOC” are also available, these paints can still emit VOCs like formaldehyde at higher levels. For this reason, it’s best to buy Zero VOC paints rather than Low VOC.
Consider VOC Absorbing Drywall
Since carpet and drywall can become re-emitters, you can cut re-emissions by installing VOC-absorbing drywall. Instead of absorbing and releasing formaldehyde and other VOCs, this special drywall converts the VOCs into an inert substance.
Let Fresh Air In & Focus on Humidity
Improving ventilation goes a long way toward reducing indoor formaldehyde, so open your windows and breathe the fresh air. Also, focus on the temperature and humidity level in your home. According to the EPA, heat accelerates the rate at which formaldehyde is released and may also depend somewhat on the humidity level. If you’re concerned about formaldehyde in your home, keep your home cool with low humidity.
Purify with Plants & Air Cleaners
Scientific studies have proven that some plants absorb formaldehyde and other VOCs like benzene. The Boston Fern is the best formaldehyde absorbing plant. Get the details on how to use plants to absorb formaldehyde.
The ideal way to improve your indoor air quality is to purchase a high-quality air cleaner specially designed to remove formaldehyde and other air pollutants. Most air purifiers come with HEPA filters that are not equipped to reduce VOCs. You’ll need an air cleaner that also has a carbon filter designed to attract VOCs. Put one in your bedroom for a healthy night’s sleep. Another smart place to use an air cleaner is in your living area near your kitchen or fireplace to reduce formaldehyde from using your gas stove or fireplace.
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