Understanding The Risks of Formaldehyde Exposure

In widespread use, formaldehyde's toxicity and volatility make exposure a significant consideration for human health.

As such, AIHA provides the following resources for informational purposes. Determination of whether and/or how to use any or all of the following information is made at your sole and absolute discretion. This material is voluntarily provided, and neither AIHA nor its affiliates shall have any liability based on the use of any of the information herein.

Frequently Asked Questions - Formaldehyde

What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical used to manufacture many building materials and household products. At low airborne concentrations, typically encountered in homes and other non-industrial settings, formaldehyde has little or no odor.

Formaldehyde is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. It is also used to manufacture many other common products such as household cleaners, paints, textiles, landscape and yard products, personal care products, and pesticides.

Formaldehyde can be released into the air by automobiles, cigarettes, burning wood, kerosene, or natural gas. It is present at low ambient outdoor air levels (higher in cities, lower in rural areas). Formaldehyde also occurs naturally. It is produced in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes.

How does formaldehyde get into my home?

Very low “trace” quantities of airborne formaldehyde are present in almost every home due to the products, materials, and other sources mentioned above. After building materials containing formaldehyde are installed, formaldehyde may be released over time as the product ages, resulting in some formaldehyde concentration in the air. This release depends on many factors, including the product's formaldehyde content (s), the amount of the product installed, and the type and amount of ventilation in the home. This release is typically greatest when the product is new, and the airborne concentrations of formaldehyde subside over time.

Why does it matter if I am exposed to airborne concentrations of formaldehyde?

Exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may result in headaches or irritation of the throat and eyes. In certain instances, exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may also cause respiratory issues, including asthma. Exposure over a long period of time has been associated with cancer in humans. People are affected differently by exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde. Typically the greatest concern is for children and the elderly. At low concentrations, some individuals may experience adverse health symptoms while others may not.

How can I reduce airborne formaldehyde concentrations in my home?

The best way to reduce airborne concentrations of formaldehyde in your home is to limit the products that contain formaldehyde. Shallow “background” concentrations of airborne formaldehyde are found in almost every home due to the many building materials in homes and by the products used daily. As temperature and humidity go up in the home, the amount of formaldehyde released from a product or building material may also increase. Providing adequate ventilation by opening doors and windows and using fans to circulate fresh air can help lower concentrations of formaldehyde in the air. Air conditioners and dehumidifiers can lower the temperature and humidity levels, thereby mitigating the effects of formaldehyde.

How do I test for the presence of formaldehyde in the air?

If you have concerns about formaldehyde concentrations, AIHA recommends that you hire an industrial hygienist or trained occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professional to conduct air sampling. After samples are collected, the industrial hygienist will ensure that they are sent to a qualified, accredited lab to test for the presence of formaldehyde. The industrial hygienist will explain the lab results so that you understand what they mean for your home.

If you decide to use a home screening test kit to collect a sample, make sure that the samples collected are sent to a qualified, accredited laboratory to test for the presence of formaldehyde. These kits typically contain a small formaldehyde sampler, known as a dosimeter. Be sure to follow all instructions provided with the sampler and promptly send the device to the laboratory when sampling is complete.

How do I find a consultant or expert to help me?

AIHA recommends that you rely on industrial hygienists and OEHS-trained professionals to conduct sampling, arrange for proper testing, and develop approaches to reduce risks from formaldehyde exposure. The public can also consult these qualified professionals to help you identify a qualified, accredited laboratory. More importantly, they can properly interpret the results you will receive from the testing laboratory. The AIHA Consultants Listing is a resource that the public can use to identify industrial hygienists and other trained practitioners in your area.

Questions to ask the consultant you may consider hiring include:

  • Are you a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) or a trained occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professional with a background in indoor air quality?

  • Do you use only labs accredited for the analysis of formaldehyde?

  • Do you have specific experience in addressing formaldehyde issues in homes?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” AIHA recommends that you find another consultant.

Why an industrial hygienist or occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professional?

An industrial hygienist oftentimes referred to as an OEHS professional anticipates health and safety concerns in workplaces and homes, and they design solutions to prevent hazards. They are the guardians of your workplace and your home. Industrial hygienists apply science to identify and solve health and safety problems and have extensive experience assessing, interpreting, and reducing exposures in a wide range of settings.

How do I find a qualified laboratory to test formaldehyde?

AIHA recommends that after collection, all types of formaldehyde air samples be sent to a qualified, accredited laboratory. To determine if you are sending a sample to the right laboratory, ask the following questions:

  • Is the laboratory accredited for testing to the international standard ISO/IEC 17025:2005?

  • Do the laboratory’s accredited test methods cover the analysis of formaldehyde air samples, including the analysis of passive dosimeter badges?
    • If yes, is the passive dosimeter validated for performance?

  • If the laboratory provides formaldehyde samplers, does the laboratory also provide complete written instructions on using the formaldehyde sampler, including how to return the device for analysis?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” AIHA recommends that you find another lab.

What is an accredited laboratory?

An accredited laboratory has demonstrated its quality assurance and technical competence according to ISO/IEC 17025:2005. AIHA’s affiliate, AIHA Laboratory Accreditation Programs, LLC (“AIHA-LAP”), accredits laboratories under its Industrial Hygiene Laboratory Accreditation Program (IHLAP), many of which have testing scopes that include formaldehyde. You can find a list of IHLAP accredited laboratories with each laboratory’s testing scope and certificate on the AIHA-LAP website. Staff at AIHA-LAP can also help locate IHLAP labs with scopes that cover formaldehyde.

Who does AIHA represent?

AIHA is a non-profit, individual membership-based professional society founded in 1939. AIHA provides programs, products, and services to its nearly 8,500 members. Nearly one-half of AIHA members hold a professional certification, most notably the Certified Industrial Hygiene (CIH) certification. AIHA members focus on the protection of the health and safety of employees, as well as the broader community and your home.

The following organizations can provide additional resources on formaldehyde that you may find helpful.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA offers information about the use of formaldehyde in building materials and household products.

On July 27, 2016, EPA finalized a rule to reduce exposure to formaldehyde vapors from certain wood products produced domestically or imported into the United States. You may find information on this regulation here.

You can contact the EPA at:

Office of Radiation and Indoor Air
Indoor Environments Division
Mail Code 6609J
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20460
202–554–1404 (EPA Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA) Assistance Line)

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The CPSC has information about household products that contain formaldehyde.

You can contact CPSC at:

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
1–800–638–2772 (1–800–638–CPSC)
301–595–7054 (TTY)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

OSHA has information about occupational exposure limits for formaldehyde.

You may find specific information from OSHA on formaldehyde in the workplace here.

You can contact OSHA at:
U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration
200 Constitution Avenue
Washington, DC 20210
1–800–321–6742 (1–800–321–OSHA)