What’s Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a substance made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is found naturally in every living system – from plants to animals to humans. In fact, humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde every day as part of our normal metabolic process.

Formaldehyde Occurs Naturally

Building Materials

Formaldehyde is a critical chemical building block in the production of hundreds of items and plays an important role in everyday life. For example, not only is the generation of formaldehyde essential for human metabolism, it is also used as part of the process to create and form many materials that we depend upon regularly. However, did you know that little or no formaldehyde is present in the final product? As an essential reactive intermediate (or ingredient) in the production of some of the most common items (e.g., building materials, flooring, medical devices, automobiles), the chemistry of formaldehyde is helping to improve the standard of living by creating products that last longer, and are higher in quality, performance, and safety with little to no formaldehyde remaining in the final product. 

Formaldehyde is one of the most studied, and regulated, chemical substances in commerce today. Importantly, federal standards and regulations are in place to limit formaldehyde emissions and minimize any potential human health risks, including, for example, EPA’s regulations under TSCA Title VI, Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products, the most stringent formaldehyde product emissions standard in the world today. Since the early 1980s, this substance has been continuously studied to provide scientific information and support that regulated safe exposure levels for formaldehyde are protective. Given formaldehyde’s wide use, extensive product stewardship efforts have been implemented by industry, including the generation of state-of-the-art peer reviewed and published scientific research, to improve understanding and characterization of potential human health risks associated with formaldehyde.

Even though formaldehyde is already highly regulated by a number of agencies and exposures are low, well managed and controlled, it is understandable that the public may still have questions, especially when it comes to how safe is formaldehyde. That is why formaldehyde manufacturers and users continue to take their responsibility seriously, work with regulatory authorities and provide information on the safe use of formaldehyde and the products made from it. 

Formaldehyde Facts

  • Formaldehyde is present naturally, in low levels, within our body. It is in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and beverages; it’s even in trees.
  • Formaldehyde is one of the most studied chemicals in use today and more than 40 years of advanced science and practical experience clearly indicate there is a safe exposure level.
  • Formaldehyde stakeholders have for decades, committed millions of dollars to scientific research to improve understanding of formaldehyde uses, exposure potential and risk.
  • A 2019 peer reviewed scientific research publication from the University of North Carolina (UNC) provides one recent example in a series of research studies conducted over the past decade that support the fact that typical household formaldehyde concentrations do not cause adverse health effects.
  • The World Health Organization has several health and safety guidelines in place, including the protective indoor air guidelines for formaldehyde, which are well below the highest air concentration which health effects are expected to occur. 

The History

In 2010, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act was signed into law by President Obama. This law established emission standards for formaldehyde from composite wood products and directed the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to finalize a rule on how it would be implemented and enforced. (“Formaldehyde Emission Standards,” 2017)

In December of 2016, EPA finalized a national rule requiring all composite wood products “sold, supplied, offered for sale, manufactured, or imported in the United States to be labeled as TSCA Title VI compliant”. The rule also established a “third-party certification program for laboratory testing and oversight of formaldehyde emissions from manufactured and/or imported composite wood products.” (“Formaldehyde Emission Standards,” 2017)

On May 22, 2017, EPA's regulations requiring TSCA Title VI compliance went into effect. The final EPA rule ensures that composite wood products like hardwood plywood are in full compliance with the emission standards found in the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.

On July 7, 2021, the Canadian Government published its Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products Regulations in the Canada Gazette, Part II.  These Regulations take effect on January 7, 2023, and are very similar to U.S. EPA TSCA Title VI.  Health Canada has published a Guidance Document on the Canada.ca website. 

KCMA as a part of a broader coalition, is preparing correspondence to send to Health Canada addressing concerns with the guidance, how the management of declarations in the supply chain should be handled, and disappointment that the guidance did not indicate that the declarations may be managed electronically.