How It's Used
Formaldehyde (HCHO)—also known as methanal—is a colorless pungent gas at room temperature, that can also cause eye irritation. The compound is an important precursor to more complex chemicals, the largest class of which includes urea formaldehyde, melamine, and phenol formaldehyde resins. Other common uses are as a preservative in medical laboratories and mortuaries, in permanent press fabrics, paper product coatings, and as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant.
When people speak of "formaldehyde," they are often referring to a solution containing varying amounts of formaldehyde, water, and alcohol—as the compound is frequently utilized in this manner. "Formalin" describes a saturated solution of formaldehyde in water, usually with methanol added for better stability. The typical composition is 37% formaldehyde and 6-19% methanol.
The aforementioned resins are widely employed as adhesives in manufactured wood products and carpeting. As such, and owing to misguided energy conservation measures whereby buildings are excessively sealed up, formaldehyde is a common—if avoidable—indoor air pollutant.
Formaldehyde can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through the skin as a liquid. Exposure can occur during the treatment of textiles and the production of resins. Those in bioscience fields at potential risk include health care professionals and medical lab technicians, mortuary workers as well as teachers and students who handle biological specimens preserved with formalin.
HCHO entry from NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards
Formaldehyde portal page from Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
Full record from Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB), a database provided by the US National Library of Medicine.
IARC monograph on HCHO (International Agency for Research on Cancer) [pdf]
- It should be noted that many eminent toxicologists, including Dr. Meryl H. Karol [pdf] , believe that "There is considerable controversy regarding the conclusion that formaldehyde causes cancer in humans."
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