It's Your Health
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Formaldehyde is released from a variety of indoor sources, and is present at low levels in the air inside Canadian homes.
Formaldehyde (CH2O) is a colorless gas. It is irritating and has a sharp odour. Formaldehyde is widely produced around the world for use as a disinfectant and preservative. It is also used in textile finishing and in the production of resins that act as adhesives and binders for wood products, pulp, paper, glasswool and rockwool, as well as some plastics, coatings, paints and varnishes, and industrial chemicals.
Formaldehyde also enters the Canadian environment through natural sources (e.g., forest fires) and certain human activities, such as smoking tobacco, burning automotive and other fuels, and residential wood burning.
Sources of formaldehyde in indoor air include tobacco smoke, and smoke that may leak from wood-burning appliances, such as wood stoves and fireplaces.
Also, many of the products found inside Canadian homes contain and release very small amounts of formaldehyde into the air. Examples include:
As a result of releases from these sources, formaldehyde is present at low levels in all Canadian buildings. For example, in 2002-2003, Health Canada measured levels of formaldehyde in the air inside a number of homes in Prince Edward Island and in Ottawa. The levels ranged from roughly 2 to 81 parts per billion (ppb).
Formaldehyde causes cancer of the nasal cavity in laboratory animals and in workers exposed to formaldehyde in their jobs, but only at very high levels of exposure (thousands of ppb, or higher). The levels of formaldehyde in Canadian homes are well below levels of concern for cancer.
Exposure to moderate levels of formaldehyde (hundreds of ppb or greater) can cause a number of irritant symptoms, including temporary burning of the eyes or nose, and a sore throat.
Some studies have suggested that people exposed to formaldehyde levels ranging from 50 to 100 ppb for long periods of time are more likely to experience asthma-related respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing. The evidence for such effects is not conclusive. However, it is still a good idea to follow some simple steps that will help lower your exposure to formaldehyde.
You can reduce the level of formaldehyde in the air inside your home by following these steps:
The Government of Canada has been working to reduce exposure to formaldehyde for many years and has put controls on a number of sources. For example, urea formaldehyde foam insulation was banned in the 1980s. More recently, actions have been directed at other sources of formaldehyde, including residential wood burning appliances, gasoline engines and tobacco smoke. There are also labelling programs (e.g., tobacco packages) to help consumers identify sources of formaldehyde.
These and other actions have brought positive results. Recent studies show that concentrations of formaldehyde indoors are generally lower than in the past.
Health Canada is also proposing new guidelines on acceptable levels for short and long term exposure to formaldehyde. The proposed guideline was developed by Health Canada scientists, with input by other federal, provincial and international experts. Canadians are welcome to comment on the proposed guideline before it is finalized. For information on how to comment, see the Need More Info section below.
Health Canada continues to track new science on the health effects and sources of formaldehyde, and takes action to change guidelines, controls or labelling requirements when the science indicates it is needed. As part of this work, Health Canada is conducting new studies to determine the levels and sources of a number of chemicals, including formaldehyde, inside Canadian homes.
For more information about the health effects of formaldehyde, and air pollution in general, contact:
Air Health Effects Division
400 Cooper Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0K9
Telephone: (613) 957-1876
Or visit Health Canada's Air Quality Web site.
For more on the health effects of smoking, see Go Smokefree!
For advice about safe and healthy ways to use wood stoves and fireplaces, contact:
Burn it Smart! - Natural Resources Canada
Sir William Logan Building
11th Floor, 580 Booth Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0E4
Also, see the following publications:
For additional articles on this subject and other issues go to the It's Your Health Web site. You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245*
Updated: August 2005
Original: July 2005
ę Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada,
represented by the Minister of Health, 2005