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Written by HCHW Writers

Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also happens to be a common indoor air pollutant emitted by many of the following:  plywood, particleboard, fiberboard; and other pressed-wood products; carpet and carpet glues; paint and floor finish; foam insulation; fiberglass; permanent press clothing and draperies; air fresheners; and even fingernail polish and hardener.

The levels of formaldehyde typically found in indoor air are too low to be smelled but often high enough to cause toxic effects for both children and adults, especially if exposure is ongoing. Short-term exposures can cause allergic skin and mucous membrane reactions, flu-like symptoms, and asthma and other respiratory problems. Formaldehyde has also been linked to nose and throat cancers, and leukemia.

Keeping formaldehyde out of your home’s and your children’s environment is largely a matter of avoiding products that emit it. This can be difficult where construction materials are concerned—it’s often not feasible, for example, to remove existing insulation, carpet or plywood. Formaldehyde emissions from products that contain it, however, generally diminish to negligible or nonexistent levels over time and so are usually only problematic when new.

Here’s how to protect your children and keep your home’s air clear of formaldehyde:

  • Buy only solid-wood products not those made of pressed woods, which can be identified by looking at an unfinished or cut end, or under upholstery. Pressed-woods will look like wood chips, sawdust, or layers glued together.
  • Seal newer unfinished pressed-wood items with formaldehyde-free paint, varnish, or water-based polyurethane sealant.
  • When installing carpet, insist on mechanical methods like tacks instead of glues.
  • Don’t use synthetic air freshening products, especially around your children.
  • Skip the nail polishes and hardeners. (Even formaldehyde-free versions frequently contain other potentially toxic hazards.)
  • Read labels on building products, cleaners, and cosmetics. Look for formaldehyde, urea formaldehyde, or phenol formaldehyde. Be aware that not all products containing formaldehyde will list it on their labels. Consult the manufacturer and use natural alternatives whenever possible as a precaution.
  • Ventilate! Open windows and use fans and air conditioning to reduce formaldehyde concentrations.
  • Wash new clothing and bedding before use to remove fabric finishes. Don’t purchase permanent press or other treated fabrics. Air out new textiles you suspect may be treated for a week before installation in a garage or another covered outdoor spot.

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