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Formaldehyde

Methanal, Methyl aldehyde, Methylene oxide

SPRI Emission Reporting Threshold
10.0 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Air
Disclaimer
This sheet is a generic summary, designed to give the reader a basic level of background information about the substance in question. Great care has been taken to represent as effectively and correctly as possible the broad range of (not necessarily consistent) information which is available from a variety of sources. The reader must accept therefore that this sheet has no legal status and cannot be relied upon in any legal proceedings. SEPA disclaims any responsibility or liability whatsoever for errors and omissions in this sheet.
What is it?
Under normal conditions, Formaldehyde is a colourless gas, which has a strong, choking smell. Pure Formaldehyde readily reacts with itself, so commercial forms often contain stabilising agents. It is also flammable and is easily broken down in sunlight. Formaldehyde dissolves easily in water, alcohols and some other organic (carbon-containing) solvents. Formaldehyde is one of a groups of substances known as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
What is it used for?
Large amounts of Formaldehyde are produced and used in a variety of applications. These include various uses as a sterilising agent and as a preservative in foods, cosmetics, pesticides, for biological specimens and for human remains. It is also added to adhesives, resins and foams.
Where does it come from?
The most significant releases of Formaldehyde are from industry producing or using it. It is also released from facilities using it for sterilisation, such as hospitals. Vehicles not fitted with catalytic converters may emit Formaldehyde in their exhaust fumes. Releases of Formaldehyde may occur in the home, from insulation, furniture and carpets containing foam. Trace amounts of Formaldehyde are found in cigarette smoke. Formaldehyde is also released to the environment as a result of natural processes, such as forest fires and natural decay.
How might it affect the environment?
Typical releases of Formaldehyde are unilkely to affect plants and wildlife in the vicinity. It is very quickly removed from the air by reaction with other other species in the atmosphere and is broken down in water and soil within days. As a VOC, Formaldehyde may be involved in the formation of ground level of ozone, which can damage crops and materials. It is not considered likely that Formaldehyde pollution has any effects on the global environment.
How might exposure to it affect human health?
Formaldehyde can enter the body either by inhalation of air containing formaldehyde, ingestion of contaminated food or by dermal contact with formaldehyde. Inhalation of formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Exposure to high levels may cause throat spasms, accumulation of fluid in the lungs and in extreme cases death. Repeated exposures can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Individuals with asthma may be more sensitive to the effects of inhalation of formaldehyde. Ingestion of formaldehyde can cause vomiting, severe pain and in extreme cases coma and death. Dermal contact with formaldehyde can cause skin irritation and burns. Eye contact may cause severe burns. The effects of dermal and eye contact may appear hours after exposure. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated formaldehyde as a carcinogen. However, exposure to formaldehyde at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.
What steps are being taken to limit the potential impacts?
Releases of Formaldehyde are controlled through the UK Pollution, Prevention and Control (PPC) Regulations, the Food and Environmental Protection Act (FEPA 1985) and the Control of Pesticides Regulations (COPR 1986). As a VOC, levels of Formaldehyde in air are also controlled through the UK National Air Quality Strategy. Formaldehyde is not approved for authorised use as a pesticide in the UK (including Scotland) in the Pesticide Safety Directorate. It is also regulated through the European Solvents Directive (99/13/EC). The main international legislation regulating levels of VOCs such as Formaldehyde is the UN/ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Basel Convention on the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous wastes.