Formaldehyde Emissions From Consumer Products

December 29, 1998

The most comprehensive study of in-home formaldehyde emissions to be conducted in more than a decade shows that emissions from new permanent press clothing, paints, floor finishes, wallpaper and fingernail polishes may be more significant than previously recognized. Formaldehyde, a suspected human carcinogen, is used in the production of some building materials, cosmetics, home furnishings and textiles.

The study, involving 55 diverse materials and consumer products, was conducted by researchers at Battelle laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. The results are reported in the Nov. 7 web edition of the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. The article will appear in the Jan. 1 print issue of the semimonthly peer-reviewed journal. "Products such as new clothing, paints and finishes, wallpaper, and fingernail polishes and hardeners can emit substantial amounts of formaldehyde,"according to chemist Thomas Kelly, Ph.D., a Battelle senior research scientist and lead author of the article. Often the initial emission rates from such products exceed those of uncovered pressed-wood products, which are noted for formaldehyde emissions, according to Kelly. "By far, the worst non-wood product emissions came from acid-cured floor finishes," which are commercially applied to wood floors, Kelly claims. "The initial emission rates from both the base and top coats of this product were very high," he says, up to 1,000 times more than those from wood products. "Even after 24 hours of drying, each coat emitted at a steady rate that was five to 10 times higher than emissions from even the very worst wood product."

Fingernail hardeners and polishes also are high emitters of formaldehyde. For equal surface areas of product, emissions from these cosmetics during the first hour after application are many times higher than those from particleboard and veneer plywood, Kelly says. However, he points out, in a home the surface area of the cosmetics will obviously be much smaller than the surface area of wood products. Even emissions from new clothing and draperies are on a par with particleboard, according to Kelly. Minimizing exposure from non-wood products is possible by "washing new clothing before use and assuring adequate ventilation during use of other products," he says. Emission rates, however, are not the whole story, Kelly points out. "Wood products emit at a steady rate for weeks or months, whereas emissions from the cosmetics, paints and wallpaper dropped rapidly within the first hours after application." On the other hand, he notes, emissions from wood products are spread throughout the house while cosmetics, paints, clothing and wallpaper are used or applied by the user in close proximity to the product. "These factors, not only the initial emission rate, all play a part in determining how much formaldehyde exposure a person gets from a product," Kelly emphasizes. Low level exposure to formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupation Safety and Health Administration. Long-term exposure, its says, may cause respiratory difficulty, eczema and hypersensitivity.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of more than 155,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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