manufacturing many materials, such as plastics, foam insulation, fungicides, mirrors, insecticides, petroleum, resins and industrial chemicals
building materials, such as sheet vinyl flooring, doors, decking
timber materials, such as MDF, plywood and laminated timber, wall lining and coverings such as wallpaper
textiles and clothing, such as fabrics, blankets, and clothing finishes designed to gain permanent press and stain resistance
cosmetics and personal care products, such as cleansers, fingernail varnishes and hardeners, shampoos and conditioners, toothpastes and hair straightening solutions
household cleaning products, such as carpet and rug cleaners, disinfectants, dish washing liquids, and floor cleaner and polish.
Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde does not present a health concern but exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause adverse health effects including significant sensory irritation, breathing difficulties and allergic contact dermatitis.
Most consumers will not be exposed to levels of formaldehyde that would cause adverse health effects from products such as clothing, cosmetics and manufactured timber products. However, some individuals are more sensitive than others. Certain occupations may also expose people to formaldehyde on a regular basis over a long period of time.
Temporary Skin irritations
Skin rashes can result from exposure to formaldehyde. Symptoms of temporary exposure to formaldehyde vapour will usually disappear quickly, with no lasting effects, once exposure stops.
People have suffered dermatitis after wearing clothing or using cosmetic products that contained high levels of formaldehyde.
After exposure to formaldehyde in solution form in hair products or in resins used in clothing and textiles, people can become sensitive to formaldehyde and develop on-going allergies.
People who have become sensitised to formaldehyde may suffer:
Irritation of the nose, eyes, and other adverse effects
Breathing formaldehyde vapour can result in irritation of nerves in the eyes and nose. This may cause:
burning stinging or itching sensations
a sore throat
In occupational settings where people have significant daily exposure to formaldehyde, for example embalming processes in the funeral industry, they may also suffer:
impairment of dexterity, memory, and equilibrium.
There is an increased risk of rare cancers in situations where people have prolonged, high level exposure to formaldehyde. The United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) currently classifies formaldehyde as being 'carcinogenic to humans'.
Monitoring the safety of formaldehyde
The Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), the federal regulatory body responsible for industrial chemicals, has assessed formaldehyde. The NICNAS review (PDF) indicates that formaldehyde solutions can induce skin sensitisation at very low concentrations and may elicit a dermatological reaction in individuals who have been sensitised. The review results relate to exposure of the skin to formaldehyde solution rather than gaseous formaldehyde. Its review notes that the European Union (EU) Expert Group on Sensitisation categorised formaldehyde as a strong skin sensitiser.
In relation to most cosmetics in Australia, the maximum safe limit for free formaldehyde is 0.2 per cent, set through the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (Poisons Standard). Note: different formaldehyde limits apply for nail hardeners and mouthwashes (5 per cent). These limits are based on a comprehensive expert risk assessment undertaken by NICNAS. Cosmetic products that exceed these limits are hazardous and would be non-compliant with relevant state and territory legislation.
The ACCC actively monitors the safety of consumer products and has investigated safety concerns arising from the presence of formaldehyde in consumer products from time to time. A product may be recalled if it may cause injury, does not comply with a mandatory standard or is banned.
In 2007, the ACCC commissioned expert testing for residual formaldehyde content in a broad range of clothing purchased in the Australian market including shorts, shirts, trousers, tops and nightwear for infants, children and adults. No formaldehyde was detected in any of the garments submitted. These results were produced by two independent laboratories using the internationally accepted testing standard EN ISO 14184-1:1998 Textiles—Determination of Formaldehyde—Part 1: Free and Hydrolysed Formaldehyde (Water Extraction Method).
In 2010, the ACCC undertook a survey in collaboration with the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) to test formaldehyde levels in a range of cosmetic products. Of 32 products tested, two were found to have exceeded the safe limits set through the Poisons Standard. The outcome of the survey resulted in voluntary safety recalls of the two cosmetic products whose formaldehyde levels exceeded the safe limits set through the Poisons Standard.
The United States Government Accountability Office
On 13 August 2010, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report on formaldehyde in textiles in the United States. This report provides information on what is known about (1) the health risks of exposure to formaldehyde, particularly from clothing, and (2) the levels of formaldehyde in clothing sold in the United States. The Government Accountability Office analysed government reviews and the medical literature, as well as studies on levels of formaldehyde in clothing, and had a sample of 180 textiles--primarily clothing--tested for formaldehyde by an accredited laboratory. While illustrative of formaldehyde levels that may be found in clothing, the test results from the Government Accountability Office's sample cannot be projected to all clothing sold in the United States.
To gain categorisation as a ‘low-formaldehyde emission’ product, finished pressed-wood products must meet test criteria levels of less than 1ppm formaldehyde.
Most Australian-made particleboards and dry-processed fibreboards now meet these requirements and are ‘low-formaldehyde emission’ products.
Improvements in manufacturing and resin technologies, particularly the use of lignin-based adhesives, have also helped manufacturers reduce formaldehyde emissions.
The use of low formaldehyde emission products in newly constructed transportable homes and offices should ensure that indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde from manufactured timber sources do not exceed 50 ppb (parts per billion).
28 million tons of formaldehyde solution was consumed across the world in 2006
more than 1 million European Union workers are exposed to some degree of formaldehyde
an estimated 1.2 to 2.3 per cent of USA eczema sufferers have dermatitis caused by textile formaldehyde resin.