Formaldehyde: Health risks, and Environmental and Dietary sources.

I mentioned in my last post, (a long time ago – I’ve been busy spring cleaning), that I would discuss oxidative stress next – some background information first:

(“Formaldehyde is a cause of oxidative stress.” LMGTFY: 1,450,000 results.)

Formaldehyde:  formaldehyde is a chemical that can be produced within the body as part of metabolism, it is toxic however and the body would continue to break it down further for removal from the body in conditions of normal health. Formaldehyde is found in the environment from a variety of sources and is produced in the body or in food products as a metabolite (a chemical produced from the digestion/metabolism of a larger chemical) of some alternative sweeteners (G.48) and other dietary sources including fruit juices and artificial and natural flavorings. ((G.49, (p476, G.50)) (G.56)  “Formalin” is chemically very similar and may cause similar health symptoms. (G.42(G.25Formalin is used to induce pain in lab animals for experimental purposes and it was determined that the pain was due to activation of the TRPA1 channels. (G.86)

Environmental and dietary sources of formaldehyde include, (G.56):

  1. First and second hand smoke, (G.44); The formaldehyde content of some types of E-Cigarette preparations used for “vaping” instead of smoking the volatile gases have been found to vary significantly. Skipping to the last point on this list may provide the explanation – fruit flavoring based on fruit juice and essential oils from fruit and other artificial “flavorings” are frequently chemicals from a group of chemicals called aldehydes. They can break down over time into smaller chemicals which can include formaldehyde or other toxic types of aldehydes. (G.49) So if you are “vaping” in order to avoid toxins in cigarette smoke then it may be advisable to skip the “chocolate or fruit flavoring” and use an E-Cigarette product that just has the natural tobacco flavor instead. (Yes, tobacco is an herb and it has a flavor and nicotine can have some health benefits, however formaldehyde does not. The nicotine patch provides a steady dose of nicotine without any volatile toxins.)
  2. Poorly ventilated air or smog; (G.45)
  3. Vinyl and PVC plastic products off-gas formaldehyde and other volatile chemicals at levels that can make a sensitive person feel ill. (G.45). A poorly ventilated room would increase the risk of the gases accumulating to more toxic levels. The wax refinishing treatments used to clean and shine vinyl flooring are also sources of formaldehyde and other toxic gases. One re-waxing session can produce as much volatile chemicals from the chemical products that are used to strip off the old layer of wax polish and add a new layer, as the vinyl floor itself would off-gas throughout all the years of its installation. So making a choice about which type of flooring to install is also making a choice about the  type of cleaning products that will be needed to maintain the floor. (G.46) A Cleaning Product Fact Sheet is available from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board: (G.47). Types of flooring and other building materials are discussed in extensive detail in a review article regarding sources of Formaldehyde in the Indoor Environment: (G.45).
  4. Metabolites of the breakdown of the alternative sweetener aspartame and Neotame include menthol and formaldehyde. (G.48)  
  5. Older packages of fruit juice also may contain formaldehyde in amounts that can continue to increase as the product ages. The formaldehyde is produced as other chemicals become unstable over time and metabolically breakdown into a variety of smaller chemicals which include formaldehyde. The food preservative method of ionizing radiation has been found to increase the chemical breakdown of larger aldehydes in apple juice into formaldehyde and other chemicals with toxic properties. (p476, G.50)
  6. Before leaving the topic of formaldehyde, the symptoms of toxicity with workplace exposure to formaldehyde have been reported to include allergic type symptoms including: “sneezing/airways-related symptoms, itching and watery eyes.” (G.51) Formaldehyde exposure may also be a cause of systemic allergic contact dermatitis, (G.52, G.53, G.54), possibly even with symptoms of rash occurring on the eyelids.(G.55) A diet designed to avoid formaldehyde intake may be helpful for alleviating the eczema like rash. (G.52)

A summary, in reverse order;

Formaldehyde might be accumulating from several sources, (G.56):

  • Workplace exposure; Workers more at risk might include health professionals, (G.51); and hair stylists or nail salon technicians, (G.58); and funeral directors may be more at risk for developing the paralyzing chronic disease ALS, (G.59); some industries such as the garment and textile industry may have formaldehyde exposure, (G.63);
  • Aseptically packaged juices, the amount may collect in older packages as the product ages, ionizing radiation methods of food preservation have been found to increase the amount of toxic aldehydes including formaldehyde and therefore is not a recommended technique for the juice industry, (p476, G.50);
  • Nutrasweet (aspartame) and Neotame, alternative sweeteners. (G..48)
  • Vinyl flooring, cleaning products, and other PVC type of plastic products. (G.45, G.46, G.47);
  • Poorly ventilated air or smog. (G.45); *Note, lighting large numbers of decorative candles may be increasing volatile chemicals in your air supply. Also air fresheners and cleaning products may contain chemicals that break down into formaldehyde. (G.60) Lifestyle choices besides smoking cigarettes can negatively affect health. Try a fern for air freshening instead; give it a nickname and you might get some emotional benefits in addition to other physical health benefits. Plants can be useful household decorations because some types can clean the air of formaldehyde and other toxins. The original research was by a NASA scientist for use in keeping the air fresh in living environments for astronauts. For the most effective air cleaning ability, the plant does need to be watered and misted as its particular type requires, because the chemical removal of formaldehyde from the air is dependent on the roots and leaves access to water. (G.61); a mechanical problem with the furnace or water heater and ventilation system may be leaking toxic chemicals into the building’s air supply; increased efficiency of insulation and other building materials have created rooms and buildings that are too good at preventing air circulation, which makes maintenance and cleaning of ventilation systems and fans important – otherwise everyone working or living in the space might start feeling some symptoms of “sick building syndrome.” (G.62)
  • Smoking cigarettes or other products, and flavorings in “vaped” E-Cigarettes may also be a source of formaldehyde. (G.44, G.49)

Fact Sheets regarding Formaldehyde, Environmental Safety and Health:

  • The Centers for Disease Control provides a fact sheet for further guidance regarding risks and precautions regarding formaldehyde: What You Should Know About Formaldehyde, (G.57)
  • The Environmental Protection Agency provides a fact sheet on sick building syndrome: Fact Sheet: Sick Building Syndrome, (G.62)
  • The Cleaning Products Fact Sheet, by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board provides guidance regarding safer cleaning products: (G.47)
  • The National Cancer Institute’s Fact Sheet: Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk includes research on occupations that may be at risk for formaldehyde exposure and provides a list of organizations that might have more information or other help to offer. (G.63)

Sick Building Syndrome: Symptoms that may occur due to breathing air that contains too much formaldehyde may include sore throat, cough, scratchy eyes, and nosebleeds according to the fact sheet by the Centers for Disease Control. (G.57) So if everyone working in a building, or many workers or family members are all experiencing allergies or a slight cold that just doesn’t seem to want to go away – then bad air may be a problem. See the fact sheet on Sick Building Syndrome by the EPA for more information. (G.62)

Eczema: The eczema symptoms reported in medical research may occur with more chronic long-term exposure to formaldehyde and/or in individuals who also have more difficulties metabolically with detoxifiying formaldehyde – we don’t know all the answers. I have personally experienced skin rashes off and on all my life and was startled to develop it on my eyelids in my more recent past – and then was more startled, or more relieved to learn of the possible cause – formaldehyde exposure (G.55) and systemic allergic contact dermatitis, (G.52, G.53, G.54) Poor air quality was a problem at the time in part due to water heater mechanical problems, and also first and secondhand smoke were contaminants in my air supply – I cleaned up and changed habits somewhat and my eyelid rash got better – yeah science! To me that seems like an example of effective self care and effective use of evidence-based medical research even if I had to read it on my own.

Other health risks include cancer and neurological conditions: The link between cancer and formaldehyde may be less strong than for neurological disorders such as ALS in funeral home directors, (G.59), or autism in a child whose mother had prenatal exposure to formaldehyde, (G.56), however research has found some cancers associated with occupational exposure to formaldehyde. The National Cancer Institute also has a fact sheet on the topic of formaldehyde and it includes a convenient list of addresses and websites for organizations that might have more information for workers concerned about exposure risks such as OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,. (G.64) See the National Cancer Institute’s Fact Sheet: Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk for more information and resources regarding formaldehyde and occupational safety: (G.63)

Houseplants can help offices as well as astronauts:

If you are looking for a hair salon that is likely to have less formaldehyde and other volatile toxins in the air then look for one with lots of healthy ferns and other tropical low light houseplants. (G.61) If you are a hair salon or other business owner interested in improving the air quality in your establishment with the help of ferns and other houseplants, then hire a staff member who knows and loves plants because they do require some consistent care that can vary quite a bit depending on the type of plant – or buy the book by the NASA research scientist and have an employee learn how to care for your indoor air-cleaning garden.

The scientist, B. C. Wolverton, organized what he learned to help astronauts in an easy to use plant guide that lists the species of plants which were found most effective at cleaning air. The book, How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants that Purify Your Home or Office, includes guidance for caring for each species and also lists them by the types of volatile chemicals that they were able to remove from the air. (G.66)

Large urban areas may have office plant services available where a greenhouse or florist shop supplies and maintains lovely office plants for a subscription or rental type of payment. An employee of the plant business has a route of subscribing businesses to visit each week in order to water, mist, and trim plants of any dead leaves, even a healthy plant will look sad if it is covered in a layer of dust and has a few dead leaves. Plants that are sick are simply returned to the greenhouse for care or recycling and the empty spot is filled with a replacement by the plant business employee.

Ambius is an example of an office-plant company with service locations available in many urban areas in both Canada and the United States. See the Ambius website for more information and service locations:



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