Formaldehyde is used for a variety of industrial purposes, but most of us know it as the funky smelling liquid that preserved the dissection subjects in biology class.
Preservation of live tissues is just one of its functions. It can also be a disinfectant, embalming agent, chemical preservative, and solvent. It is also highly toxic to several human (and animal) organs and support systems.
Breathing in formaldehyde is probably our biggest risk of exposure to this toxic chemical. That new car smell that everyone seems to love is largely due to the formaldehyde content in the materials that comprise the interior of the vehicle.
Formaldehyde is also used heavily in the construction industry. Unless you are purchasing or building a “green” home you likely are being exposed to formaldehyde fumes years after a home is first built.
This is due to the heavy industrial use of the chemical in treating wood used in foundations, plywood, particle board, and other common materials that make up a home and its furnishings.
Cigarette smoke gives off fumes of the chemical also. Formaldehyde is often a by-product of the chemicals and tobaccos used in cigarette making when burned. Exhaust fumes from cars also contain the chemical.
New carpet, paint, certain types of glue used in home building and other adhesives, putties and structural materials contain the chemical as well. The fumes are at their worst for the first five years and tend to lessen in concentration over time.
Formaldehyde, as well as a host of other chemicals, give new homes the smell of “newness”. Anyone particularly sensitive to chemicals may experience headaches, itchy or swollen eyes, nasal and throat irritation and other discomforts until the fumes dissipate with time. It has also been linked to pulmonary dysfunction and asthma.
Many of the hair treatments on the market today contain the chemical. Hair stylists who often work with permanent hair straightening or curling treatments are heavily exposed to varying levels of formaldehyde fumes.
Stylists have reported symptoms such as bloody noses, difficulty breathing, throat and eye irritation and headaches when working in close contact with the chemical.
Formaldehyde doesn’t just find its way into our body via inhalation. It is also used in many of the items we use every day that touch our skin. This may be inadvertent as sometimes formaldehyde can be a by-product of some of the other chemicals used in our personal care products.
Ureas are a chemical family commonly used in shampoos, conditioners, lotions, cosmetics and many other personal or beauty care items. You may see them on labels as DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl or diazolidinyl. Another chemical to check for is quaternium-15.
These chemicals are used as preservatives and stabilizers and they release formaldehyde over time. Avoiding them all together is the wise thing to do if at all possible.