It’s everywhere! Formaldehyde has been linked to everything from the formation of life on earth to cancer. Among a multitude of other things, it is used for embalming bodies before burial, the creation of facial tissues and toilet paper, the manufacturing of rubber tires, and the fabricating of particleboard.

With a chemical structure of CH2O, it was first tentatively identified in 1859 by Russian chemist Alexander Mikhailovich Butlerov as he worked to synthesize methylene glycol. Then, in 1868 chemistry professor August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the University of Berlin identified it conclusively.

Naturally-occurring formaldehyde

While small amounts are naturally-occurring in some foods, it was identified by the EPA in 1987 as a probable human carcinogen. A study by the Hong Kong Center for Food Safety found that the highest level of formaldehde in the foods they tested was in shiitake mushrooms and fresh Bombay Duck.

The scientists involved in the study also said that in some seafood species, formaldehyde and dimethylamine are a natural breakdown product of a chemical called TMAO (trimethylamine oxide) that occurs when seafood creatures die. They found that frozen storage of seafood increases both the levels of formaldehyde and dimethylamine in seafood.

According to this study, small amounts of formaldehyde occur in many plants and animals as a byproduct of their normal metabolic activity. Ingestion of a sizeable amount of formaldehyde from formaldehyde-producing plants can cause severe side effects including renal injury, vomiting, abdominal pain, and even death.

Formaldehyde’s toxicity to the human body

When the levels of formaldehyde in the air exceed 0.1 ppm (parts per million), many people will develop nausea, watery eyes, burning of the eyes and nose, coughing and wheezing, and skin irritation. The National Organization for Rare Disorders refers to these formaldehyde exposure symptoms as formaldehyde poisoning.

Some people also have a contact sensitivity to it, developing contact dermatitis when they use products containing formaldehyde. A review of the studies on formaldehyde in 2010 by A. Songur, et. al. also found sufficient evidence that it is neurotoxic in a wide range of doses.

In a 2014 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine researchers concluded that human studies indicate formaldehyde exposures in varying larger amounts can cause myeloid leukemia and tumors in the nose and sinus cavities.,

People who work around it were also found to be at a greater risk of developing Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

Where harmful levels of formaldehyde are found

It may be found in a wide variety of products including personal care products, building materials, cigarette smoke, and even in wax paper. The US Department of Health and Human Services has a comprehensive list of products that contain formaldehyde that includes (among many others) the following products:

  • Aleenes School Glue
  • Softsoap Liquid Hand Soap, Coconut & Warm Ginger-Old Product and other Softsoap products
  • Many Red Devil brand products
  • Palmolive products
  • DAP and Knauf products
  • Natures Miracle Ultra-Cleanse Gentle Dog Shampoo
  • Products for use in aquariums.

It is a hidden ingredient in many cosmetics. Cosmetics companies use various chemicals as preservatives in their products, chemicals that break down into formaldehyde. These chemicals include:

  • Bronopol (2bromo2nitropropane1,3-diol )
  • Quaternium-15
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Diazolidinyl urea

One of the food-related findings about it is that the artificial sweetener aspartame turns into formaldehyde in the body. While it was originally thought that aspartame-related formaldehyde was quickly eliminated by the kidneys, a 1998 study found that the aspartame in diet foods binds to tissues in protein in the body and can be found in the liver, blood and kidneys. This leads to an accumulation of formaldehyde that has a major potential for causing cancer.

From furnace filters to the dyes in your clothes, from hand soap to pressed wood furniture, the chemical is ever-present in our society. It is important to learn where it is so we can better avoid it and reduce our risk of life-threatening cancers and other less serious maladies.