But hey, what’s wrong with formaldehyde? It’s in our breath, our apples and our trees.
A regular topic of discussion around our virtual water cooler is how hard it is to convince people about the seriousness of the environmental issues. But one doesn’t have to look very far to see how things work, particularly in the United States.
Take formaldehyde. A recent study in the UK prepared by Airtopia, a company that tests air quality, found that “nearly half of UK homes are affected by dangerous levels of formaldehyde and other pollutants.”
Formaldehyde, among other air pollutants, was identified as one of the most toxic pollutants prevalent in UK homes. Formaldehyde is a human carcinogen and can be found in adhesives in wood products such as MDF, carpets, furniture, paints and varnishes. Health effects of formaldehyde include sore throats, rhinitis, nasal irritation and breathlessness. A fifth of UK homes showed significant levels of formaldehyde with 13% of properties exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) guideline limits.
James, the occupant of one house that was tested, complained:
“We expected high levels of VOCs,” said James, “because it was a new flat, but our formaldehyde rating has made us think about what furniture to buy in the future - wood, not MDF, and quality soft furnishings.”
Chris Large, of the charity Global Action Plan, says:
“This research highlights the need for more public information and advice on indoor air pollution, and measures like better product labelling so that people can make informed choices. There is an alarming lack of awareness of indoor air pollution and the simple things householders can do to protect themselves, such as buying low VOC labelled products, using fragrance-free, milder cleaning products, ensuring they source MDF that meets European standards, and opening windows.”
Meanwhile, back in the USA, the American Chemistry Council has been promoting formaldehyde as benign, totally safe and natural, noting that it is in apples, trees and even our breath. It complains that the EPA and its rules based on Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessments are wrong, claiming that the EPA risk level is higher than that found in human breath.
EPA's proposed 2010 risk value even suggests that human breath poses an unacceptable risk of cancer. The truth is, formaldehyde is a natural part of our world and the illogical findings of IRIS are not. Formaldehyde is found in every living system – from plants to animals to humans – produced as part of our normal metabolic process. If a person inhales formaldehyde, the body breaks it down rapidly, just like when it is naturally produced in our bodies.
It’s like those post-Katrina toxic trailers never existed. But not being happy with the EPA, the American Chemistry Council got to work. According to Politico, they “spent more than $7 million last year lobbying EPA and Congress on issues including IRIS, formaldehyde and the policy to limit EPA’s use of human health research.” It has paid off:
The Trump administration is suppressing an Environmental Protection Agency report that warns that most Americans inhale enough formaldehyde vapor in the course of daily life to put them at risk of developing leukemia and other ailments, a current and a former agency official told POLITICO….“They’re stonewalling every step of the way,” the current official said, accusing political appointees of interfering with the formaldehyde assessment and other reports on toxic chemicals produced by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System.
It’s no wonder people are confused. Fortunately, notwithstanding what the governments are doing, the market has responded. According to Core77, IKEA has committed to reduce formaldehyde levels to that of background, what is natural in wood;
We aim to ensure that the volume of formaldehyde emissions from IKEA wood products corresponds with the natural output level – that is to say, very low and in accordance with the legal requirements. The current measurement for IKEA furniture is an average of 0.05 ml/m3 [parts per million] of air – approximately 50% below the legally permissible limit.
Many companies are changing their glue formulations to eliminate formaldehyde. Fiberglass insulation companies have switched to acrylic binders. Many of the building products shown above have formaldehyde-free or reduced alternatives. If you care about living in a healthy building, you now have options. And as houses get tighter, this issue becomes even more critical because it can build up. The consensus among just about everybody except the American Chemistry Council is that you want to minimize your exposure to formaldehyde. You can live without it.