Formaldehyde is a chemical compound made up of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. It is naturally produced by all life forms as part of cell metabolism and has the chemical formula; H-CHO. Formaldehyde is the simplest form of an aldehyde. The compound comes in various forms, including a colourless, pungent gas and a linear polymer called paraformaldehyde. A third form is the cyclic trimer metaformaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is used in many different applications, including construction, healthcare and automobiles. Little, if any, formaldehyde is left in consumer-ready products. In building, the compound is often used in the form of formaldehyde-based resins, which are used in flooring, support beams, shelving, moldings and furniture. When used as a building block in glue, formaldehyde makes an exceptionally strong bonding agent. In healthcare, the compound is used in vaccines, hard-gel capsules and anti-infective drugs. Formaldehyde is also used in personal care products as a preservative to kill bacteria and extend shelf-life. Finally, in automobiles, formaldehyde-based resins are used for their high temperature and physical durability.
The routes of exposure for formaldehyde include; inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact.
Inhalation of formaldehyde may cause drowsiness or dizziness with possible loss of reflexes, coordination and vertigo. Inhalation of low concentrations may cause a tingling sensation in the nose and upper respiratory tract with higher concentrations causing a burning sensation and headache.
Animal experiments suggest that ingestion of less than 40g may be fatal to humans. Immediate symptoms of ingestion include chemical burns in the mouth and gastrointestinal tract, with severe abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, dizziness and possible death to follow. The methanol present in the chemical may also cause visual impairment with permanent blindness a real possibility.
Skin exposure to the chemical can produce chemical burns on the skin as well as severe inflammation of the skin. The chemical can also gain entry into the bloodstream through open cuts and wounds, which can lead to other harmful effects.
Exposure to the eye can result in chemical burns whilst vapour or mist in the eye can be extremely irritating. The Irritation will cause heavy secretion of tears.
In 2011, the US National Toxicology Program categorised formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.
If inhaled, remove the person from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. If the patient is not breathing, perform CPR. Seek medical attention without delay.
If swallowed, urgent hospital treatment is likely to be needed. The patient should rinse their mouth out and slowly drink as much as they comfortably can. Vomiting should not be induced, but if it occurs, lean the patient forward or place on their left side to prevent aspiration.
If skin exposure occurs, quickly remove all contaminated clothing, footwear and accessories and cleanse the affected area with plenty of running water. Seek medical attention.
If the chemical makes contact with the eyes, flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Removal of contact lenses should only be done by a skilled individual. Seek medical attention without delay.
Safety showers and emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and there should always be adequate ventilation (install local exhaust if necessary).
The PPE recommended when handling formaldehyde includes; a respirator, chemical goggles, a full face shield, chemical protective gloves, safety gumboots, overalls and a PVC protective suit for cases of severe exposure.