Introduction to Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is one of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are air pollutants known to cause short- and long-term health effects. Like the other VOCs, formaldehyde plays an important role in Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).

What Is Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde, which may also be known as formalin in some forms, is a colorless gaseous compound at room temperature, with the formula HCHO. It has a pungent and easily recognized smell. Other names by which formaldehyde is known include methanal, methylene oxide, oxymethyline, methylaldehyde, and oxomethane. It has two different resin forms: urea formaldehyde (UF) and phenol formaldehyde (PF). Products containing urea formaldehyde release higher levels of the gas.

Products Containing Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is both an industrial chemical used in manufacturing building products including:

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  • particleboard
  • hardwood plywood paneling
  • medium density fiberboard

    These three types of products have UF resins and are found in the following applications in home interiors:

    • subflooring
    • shelving
    • cabinetry
    • furniture
    • drawer fronts
    • furniture tops
    • decorative wall covering

The less toxic PF resins are found in products such as:

  • softwood plywood
  • flake or oriented strandboard

These pressed wood products are created for exterior construction.

Other household sources include fiberglass, carpets, and paper products. Other sources include certain food preservatives, fertilizer, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, and adhesives. Formaldehyde is also a byproduct of incomplete combustion, cigarette smoking, and burning fuels such as wood, kerosene, and natural gas.

Health and Formaldehyde

That formaldehyde is toxic may be surprising to people who know that small amounts are actually created in our bodies, Nevertheless, the documented health effects of formaldehyde exposure run from eye, throat, and skin irritation to difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, and severe allergic reactions. Formaldehyde has caused cancer in laboratory animals, and is suspected to be carcinogenic for humans.

Recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that exposure should be limited to under 0.05 parts/million (ppm). There are do-it-yourself formaldehde measuring devices available for homeowners, but the complicated nature of the factors that influence the results—including weather conditions, ventilation rates, etc.—leads to the recommendation that trained professionals should both measure and interpret the results.

For those who are concerned about their situation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxic Substance Control Act Assistance Line provides assistance at


To speak with an environmental health specialist at the Environmental Health Center division of the National Safety Council, you can reach one at

(800) 557-2366

or via e-mail:

Written by Mary Elizabeth

Related Home Institute Articles

  • Introduction to Radon
  • Radon Testing
  • Introduction to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
  • Wall-to-Wall Carpeting Buying Guide
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Safety