Indoor Air Pollutants – Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde Exposure Contributes to “Sick Building Syndrome.”



Indoor air pollution occurs when air pollutants become trapped within a building and concentrates into unhealthy levels. Adverse health effects can occur due to indoor air pollution and can cause “Sick Building Syndrome.” Both workplaces and homes can have harmful indoor air pollution. One of the most common indoor air pollutants is formaldehyde.


According to the OSHA Fact Sheet on formaldehyde, it is one of the 900 known volatile organic compounds (VOC). These compounds take gaseous form at room temperature, and many are considered carcinogens. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas but has a strong odor which is responsible for the “new” smell products, and buildings can have. According to the University of Florida article “Indoor Air Quality in Florida: Formaldehyde” by Virginia Peart, formaldehyde is very commonly used due to its low cost and strong adhesive properties. One of its most common uses is to form particle board which is found in almost all building structures.

Formaldehyde Side Effects

Formaldehyde exposure can negatively impact health. In fact, more than 40% of those who are exposed to formaldehyde develops some degree of reaction. Relatively low amounts of formaldehyde can cause inflammation and irritation of the mucous membranes surrounding the eyes and in the upper respiratory system. Higher concentrations can induce dizziness, vomiting, headaches and rash. Very high concentrations can cause death. Animal studies indicate that formaldehyde is likely to be a carcinogen. A rare form of nasal cancer, which affects more than 300 individuals each year, has been linked to high formaldehyde exposure.

Where is Formaldehyde Found?

Due to its high usability and bonding properties, formaldehyde is found very commonly in buildings. Since it is used in particle board, it is also found in furniture and cabinetry. Disturbingly, formaldehyde is also sometimes found in foods. It can be added to dyes, insulation, body care products, paper products and adhesives.

Unfortunately, formaldehyde may be difficult to identify in product ingredient lists as it goes by many names. Some names, like Formic Aldehyde or Formalin, are easier to detect. However, its other identifiers, such as Oxymethylene and Morbicid, only add to the challenge of avoiding this VOC.

Indoor Air Purification

Removing formaldehyde from buildings usually requires professional assistance. Even after the main source has been removed, other surfaces that have absorbed the formaldehyde gas may release it as well. However, you can reduce the amount of formaldehyde that you are exposed to in your living and work spaces. Some indoor air purifiers can lower formaldehyde levels. Additionally, decreasing the temperature to 68 degrees can markedly reduce formaldehyde gas. Maintaining humidity levels at no higher than 40% also limits formaldehyde. In dry climates, air ventilation from open windows helps but contributes to outdoor air pollution.

Just as trees help to reduce outdoor air pollution, common houseplants can reduce indoor formaldehyde levels through phytoremediation, according to the Colorado State University web page “Indoor Air Pollution.” The plants that were found to lower formaldehyde levels include heart leaf philodendron, spider plant, and golden pothos. Phytoremediation studies were conducted by NASA scientist Dr. B. Wolverton.

Avoiding products and supplies that contain formaldehyde is one of the best ways to avoid exposure. For more information on formaldehyde and its alternative names, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.