Formaldehyde Exposure Presents Unreasonable Risk to Humans: EPA

More than one million Americans face an increased risk of leukemia, head and neck cancers from chronic formaldehyde exposure, according to the EPA.

A preliminary report by federal environmental regulators has determined that formaldehyde exposure is unsafe for humans, potentially leading to asthma, allergic reactions, various forms of cancer and death.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the draft Formaldehyde Risk Evaluation on March 15, warning that a number of people routinely inhale or come into physical contact with formaldehyde, either from work in manufacturing fields or through the use of several common products, which may increase their risk of developing serious and potentially life-threatening health conditions.

In the evaluation, the EPA assessed the many ways individuals are exposed to formaldehyde in both indoor and outdoor environments, as well as the associated health risks of short and long-term exposure. It found that workers face the highest risk of formaldehyde exposure, followed by consumers who frequently use certain products containing the chemical.

Formaldehyde Health Risks

Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical used to make many construction and building materials, paper products and cosmetics. However, exposure to high levels of the chemical can cause serious health problems when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause eye irritation if inhaled or allergic reactions if it touches the skin, while longer exposure can result in lung damage, severe eye irritation, reproductive issues, asthma, allergy-related conditions, and even cancer.

Formaldehyde exposure has been a concern among health experts for years, especially exposure from workplace environments and certain consumer products. Research published by the American Academy of Neurology in 2021 found that long-term formaldehyde exposure in the course of employment was associated with a 21% higher risk of cognitive impairment, including lower IQ scores and memory loss.

In 2022, the EPA found that formaldehyde exposure from the use of industrial products may be associated with rare but serious cancers. The agency indicated that long-term exposure to even low formaldehyde levels could cause nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer and myeloid leukemia, which impacts bone marrow and blood cells.

As a result of the report, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limited occupational formaldehyde exposure in the workplace to 0.75 ppm on average over an eight-hour workday, or 2 ppm not exceeding a 15-minute period.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on formaldehyde and chemicals that release formaldehyde from being used in hair relaxer and chemical hair straightener products in October 2023. Officials indicated use of those products was linked to sensitization reactions, breathing problems, and an increased risk of certain cancers. The FDA also recommended consumers avoid using products that contain the chemical.

Formaldehyde Exposure Risks for Workers and Consumers

The latest EPA report found that individuals exposed to formaldehyde at work, those who use products containing high concentrations of formaldehyde, people living or working near facilities that emit formaldehyde, and those living in mobile homes or other indoor environments with high formaldehyde concentrations face the highest exposure and health risks.

According to the report, individuals who work with chemicals in the automotive and fuel product industries, including those who apply automotive lubricants, greases, fuels, paints, and spray products containing formaldehyde, are exposed to higher concentrations than in any other industry.

Workers in or near facilities that manufacture and process chemical substances, such as paint additives, adhesives, sealants, and coatings, also have high exposure to formaldehyde. Industry workers inhale higher concentrations of the chemical after it is released into the air or by making skin contact with formaldehyde-containing materials, the agency determined.

Products That May Expose Consumers to Formaldehyde

The EPA also found some consumers also faced high formaldehyde exposure risks through many every day products, construction, and building materials.

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Consumers are routinely exposed to formaldehyde through stone, plaster, cement, glass, ceramic, metal, and rubber products, wood furniture, paint, floor coverings, foam seating and bedding, cleaning and furniture care products. They also face an increased risk of suffering from adverse health effects with chronic formaldehyde exposure through adhesives, sealants, paint, coatings, art crafts, ink, toner, and other photographic supplies, the report indicated.

Many individuals have chronic exposure to some levels of formaldehyde in the air, according to the EPA report. Processing facilities and industries that use combustible engines emit high concentrations of formaldehyde into the air, exposing anyone within 50 km. The EPA indicates that more than one million individuals face an increased risk of formaldehyde-induced leukemia and head and neck cancers due to chronic inhalation exposure.

The EPA found that 15 minutes or more of formaldehyde exposure in a single day is associated with stomach problems and allergic reactions. Exposure over 5.5 hours for 250 days per year is associated with more severe gastrointestinal effects and allergic reactions, as well as breathing problems, reduced pulmonary function, allergies, and asthma. The agency concluded that long-term exposure to the chemical contributes to an increased risk of developing formaldehyde-induced cancers, including nasopharyngeal and leukemia cancers

The findings will be available for a 60-day public comment period. A public meeting will be held on May 7, for the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC) and public to submit questions before undergoing another virtual peer review public meeting, which will be held from May 20-23. Once the EPA receives comments and peer review inputs, it will revise and finalize a final risk evaluation assessment.

For more information on the scheduled meetings, consumers may visit the SACC website.


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