The Lowdown on Formaldehyde


When you think of high school Biology class, you might remember the pickle-like odor of Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde (chemical formula CH2O) is usually kept in an aqueous solution called formalin and has been used to preserve specimens for academic and scientific uses, which is why we often associate it with those science classes.

Formaldehyde is found in many different products,  some of which are very common in everyday life. It’s used in both adhesives and solvents as well as preservatives. It can be found in the home in pressed wood and particle board, wallpaper and paints, synthetic fabrics and some cosmetics. It’s also released in auto exhaust, cigarette smoke and wood smoke.

Because formaldehyde quickly turns into a gas at room temperature, it’s included in a larger group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are released into the air from everyday items in a process called off-gassing. VOCs can be up to five times more concentrated in unventilated indoor air than in outdoor air.

Formaldehyde exposure may have harmful effects. While formaldehyde found in everyday home items has not been definitively linked to cancer, it can still cause health problems. Short-term exposure can result in nausea, nasal or throat irritation, eye or skin irritation, coughing, headaches or dizziness. Some people are more sensitive to its effects and can have a faster or more severe reaction.  

Balanced ventilation and humidity regulation are key components of keeping formaldehyde and other VOC’s out of your home. A Zehnder ERV helps keep the home air clean by continuously adding fresh, filtered air and removing stale air from the home as well as helping to maintain optimal humidity levels. With the ERV’s continuous air exchange, outdoor pollutants are filtered out before the fresh air is brought into the home while VOCs or particles that are introduced into the home from other sources, like the products we bring in, are constantly being removed and replaced with clean filtered air.

You can also help keep the indoor air clean by limiting the introduction of formaldehyde and other harmful VOCs into the air in your home in the first place. Some ways to do this are by storing chemicals in a separate building, properly disposing of unused paints and other chemicals, and opening the packaging of furniture and textiles outside, allowing off-gassing of VOCs for a few hours in an area where they will dissipate. Don’t allow smoking inside the home, and look for products low in VOCs.