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 it is written formulaically as: 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. In 2011, the US National Toxicology Program categorised formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. [1,2]

Uses [1,2]

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.


Routes of Exposure [1, 3]

  • Formaldehyde does not accumulate in animals or people, as it is quickly broken down by the body’s natural processes.
  • People can be exposed to formaldehyde by skin contact, inhalation, or by eye contact.
  • Formaldehyde is naturally found in every living organism, and is produced by humans to build basic internal materials.
  • It can be found in a range of meats, fish, coffee, alcoholic beverages and fruits.

Health Effects

Formaldehyde poisoning can affect a range of systems and areas of the body, including the skin, and the nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Acute Effects [3]

Severity of symptoms depends on the level and type of exposure.

  • If formaldehyde is inhaled, the victim may experience a runny nose, coughing and irritation of the respiratory tract and nasal mucous membranes.
  • If formaldehyde is inhaled in large quantities, there may be respiratory difficulties, including possible laryngeal spasm, a possible oedema of the upper respiratory tract and the risk of a lung oedema.
  • If swallowed in small amounts, formaldehyde can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.
  • If formaldehyde is swallowed in high quantities, symptoms may include CNS depression, blood in vomit and/or stool, dizziness, urine discolouration or change in composition and shock.
  • Eye contact by formaldehyde will corrode the eye tissue.
  • If there is skin contact, formaldehyde will cause caustic burns.

Chronic Effects [3]

Formaldehyde is toxic to multiple body systems. Long-term exposure to the compound can cause skin changes, including red and dry skin and rash or inflammation. It can also result in coughing and inflammation of the respiratory tract as well as other respiratory difficulties.


First Aid Measures [3]

  • Ingestion: If ingested, rinse mouth and DO NOT induce vomiting. Immediately call a doctor or a poison centre.
  • Ingestion in large amounts: if ingested in large quantities, take victim immediately to hospital, along with the container of vomit.
  • Skin contact: In case of skin or hair contact, shower/wash immediately for at least 15 minutes with water. Remove all contaminated clothing immediately while washing. If clothes stick, do not remove. Wrap wounds with a sterile bandage. Consult doctor. If >10% of skin is covered in burns, take victim to hospital.
  • Eye contact: Flush eyes carefully with water for 15 minutes. DO not apply a neutralizing agent. Take person to an ophthalmologist.
  • Inhaled: Take contaminated person to nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. Immediately contact a doctor.

Exposure Controls/Personal Protection [3]

  • Engineering controls: Safety showers and emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure. Ensure there is adequate ventilation. Whenever possible, material should be handled in a laboratory.
  • Personal protection: Safety glasses, protective and dustproof clothing, a face shield and a gas mask with a filter type A.

Regulation [5]

United States:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) concentration for formaldehyde of 0.75 parts per million (ppm). For their Short Term Exposure Limit (15 minutes), OSHA has set a limit of 2ppm.

Australia [4]

Safe Work Australia: Safe Work Australia has set an 8-hour TWA concentration for formaldehyde of 1ppm.