Environmental Health Promotion
This mini-blog series is part two of the “Environmental Health Promotion” project, which deals with global health challenges that are harmful to both the environment and people’s well-being. Its main goal is to raise public awareness about how we can take care of the environment and improve global health. It also offers ways for individuals to protect themselves from these issues. In the first part of the report, we looked at five global health concerns: Antibiotic Resistance, PFAS, Vaccines and Immunization, Microplastics, and Mycotoxins. This next section will explore E-Waste, Formaldehyde, Triclosan, Bisphenol A, and Phthalates. These concerns will be explained in detail, including what the problem is and what individuals can do to help solve it. Since there is only one planet Earth, all of us need to take action. By getting involved, each of us can play a part in preserving the health of our planet, ensuring that future generations can enjoy the same quality of life that we do.
You can find the other blogs related to the second report here:
Formaldehyde (CH₂O) is a colorless and odorless gas with high toxicity and flammability when exposed to regular temperatures. It has numerous industrial applications, including the production of fertilizers, paper, plywood, and certain resins. Formaldehyde is also used as a food preservative and can be found in everyday items, such as antiseptics, medications, and cosmetics. Beyond industry, formaldehyde plays a role in adhesive materials, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, and building components. Notably, tobacco smoke is a significant source of formaldehyde in homes, and newly manufactured wood products like furniture and flooring can release formaldehyde into the air.
When mixed with water, formaldehyde turns into a solution called formalin, which is widely used as an industrial disinfectant and as a preservative in places including funeral homes and medical labs. It is worth noting that some products we use every day, such as cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions, sunscreens, and cleaning agents, may contain substances that can release formaldehyde, even if formaldehyde is not listed on the label.
Formaldehyde can also be found naturally in small amounts in some foods, like fruits, and it is sometimes added as a preservative in certain food products. Additionally, when we cook or smoke food, formaldehyde can be generated. It is interesting to know that formaldehyde is produced naturally in our bodies and in most living things as part of normal processes, but it is usually in very tiny amounts.
How serious is the problem?
Exposure to formaldehyde can lead to irritation in various parts of the body, including the skin, throat, lungs, and eyes. When people are repeatedly exposed to formaldehyde over a long period, there is a potential risk of developing cancer. The level of exposure depends on factors like the amount of formaldehyde, how long the exposure lasts, and the type of work being done. Exposure can happen in several ways, including breathing in indoor air that is contaminated with formaldehyde, exposure to tobacco smoke, or even being in areas with high levels of formaldehyde in the air. Breathing in formaldehyde, whether it is a one-time exposure or happens repeatedly, can lead to respiratory symptoms and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
While research on the effects of formaldehyde exposure in humans is somewhat limited, some studies have suggested a connection between formaldehyde exposure and an increased risk of lung and nasopharyngeal (nose and throat) cancers. Studies in animals exposed to formaldehyde through inhalation have also shown an elevated incidence of nasal squamous cell carcinoma.
When animals and aquatic organisms are exposed to formaldehyde, it can have serious negative consequences for their overall health, reproductive abilities, and their life expectancy. Formaldehyde exposure can also lead to changes in their behavior and physical traits. At higher concentrations, formaldehyde can harm soil metabolism and interfere with the germination of pollen, affecting plant growth and reproduction as well. This highlights the broad-reaching impact that formaldehyde can have on various aspects of ecosystems and the environment.
What can I do?
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has provided recommendations to reduce formaldehyde levels in residential environments:
- Choose Low or No Formaldehyde Products: When selecting household items and furnishings, opt for those with minimal or no formaldehyde content. Avoid products that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) or ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde (ULEF). Look for labels indicating “No VOC/Low VOC” (volatile organic compound).
- Airing Out New Purchases: When you bring new products into your home, allow them to release any formaldehyde they might contain by placing them outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Keep these items away from your living spaces until you no longer detect any chemical odor.
- Precautions for Laundering: Wash permanent-press clothing and curtains before using them.
- Optimal Indoor Conditions: Maintain indoor temperature and humidity levels in a comfortable setting. Using exhaust fans whenever possible can enhance ventilation and help reduce formaldehyde concentrations indoors.
- Smoke-Free Home: Establish and maintain a smoke-free environment within your home, strictly prohibiting smoking activities. This step further contributes to reducing indoor air pollution and formaldehyde exposure.
Author: Fion Chan*
Edited by: Jasmine Therese Arcilla
*Fion is SOGH’s Environmental Sustainability Manager. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and is pursuing a Master of Medical Science in Global Health at the University of Gothenburg.