Health, Safety, Security and Environment

Formaldehyde Exposure

3 min read

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical, both as a gas and as a liquid. Long-term exposure increases your health risks. Employers who use this chemical must have an exposure control plan in place.

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How workers are exposed

Although dangerous as a liquid, formaldehyde is most dangerous as a gas. Two industries where formaldehyde exposure is common are:

  • Some glues and varnishes release formaldehyde gas when they are heated.
  • Furniture makers and wood panel manufacturing workers can be regularly exposed.
Medical industry
  • Liquid formaldehyde, or formalin, is used to preserve, disinfect, and embalm. It can splash on the skin and be absorbed, or its vapours can be inhaled.
  • Nurses, doctors, surgeons, mortuary workers or anyone in a room where formaldehyde is used can be exposed.
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The risks

Formaldehyde is most dangerous when the liquid is heated and becomes a gas or vapour. In this form it can be easily inhaled. It has the following short-term and long-term health effects:

Short-term exposure
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Coughing and wheezing as concentration increases
  • Difficulty breathing when formaldehyde concentration is high
Long-term exposure
  • Makes all symptoms worse
  • Causes allergic reactions on the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract
  • High levels can cause cancer in the nose, throat, or lungs

How to reduce the risks

The most effective way to reduce the risk of exposure to formaldehyde is to eliminate the source of exposure. If that’s not possible, there are other risk controls to use. When choosing risk controls, start by asking yourself the questions in the following steps. The steps are listed in order of effectiveness.

  1. Elimination or substitution

    Eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible, is the most effective control. Some questions to consider:

    • Can a less hazardous material be used?
    • Can other, less hazardous fixing agents be used in medical applications?
  2. Engineering controls

    Making physical modifications to facilities, equipment and processes can reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Can ventilated cabinets and exhaust systems be installed to carry away formaldehyde vapours?
    • Can fans be added to ventilation systems at ground level to push gases away from workers?
    • Can hospitals and mortuaries use systems that pull gas downwards, away from the worker’s face?
  3. Administrative controls

    These involve changing work practices and work policies. Providing awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. All can limit the risk of formaldehyde exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Has an exposure control plan been developed?
    • Can work practices and formaldehyde storage systems be improved to reduce or prevent exposure to formaldehyde?
    • Can warning signs be posted in the work area?
    • Can signs explaining exposure symptoms be posted?
    • Can other workers be scheduled away from areas where formaldehyde is being used?
  4. Personal protective equipment

    This is the least effective control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:

    • Do workers have the proper gloves, eye wear, face shields, respirators, and aprons?
    • Has personal protective equipment been tested to make sure it is working properly?

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