(NaturalNews) Many consumers may not be aware that formaldehyde, a toxin and carcinogen commonly used in the embalming process, is also one of the most common ingredients in many materials that make up a normal home. As a result, many household items -- from furniture to bed sheets -- emit formaldehyde fumes that are harmful to the health of families and children.
Formaldehyde may be best known for its use as a tissue preservative, such as in the preservation of animals for dissection in schools. It is the chemical's very toxic nature that makes it such an effective preservative: it quickly kills bacteria or fungi that might otherwise begin the process of decomposition. But formaldehyde is also an ingredient in a wide variety of resins used to make permanent adhesives for plywood and carpeting, causing it to be present in furniture and building materials (particularly those made with pressed wood products) and certain molded plastics.
Formaldehyde resins are used to make textiles crease-resistant and can be found in everything from curtains to sheets and clothing. These resins are also used in dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, carpet cleaners, glues, cardboard and paper products (including wallpaper) and certain latex paints. They are also used in products intended to be used on the body, such as cosmetics (including nail polish and nail hardener) and paper products (facial tissues, napkins and paper towels).
All of these products outgas small quantities of formaldehyde, as do certain insulating foams that are no longer in use in new home construction but that may be present in older homes. Burning of most materials also releases formaldehyde, so fireplaces, wood stoves and smoking can also be a source of indoor formaldehyde.
All buildings are contaminated with formaldehyde
According to Canada's health agency, Health Canada, all buildings in Canada (and presumably the industrialized world) contain low levels of formaldehyde. The agency conducted a study in 2002 and 2003 to measure levels of the contaminant in homes in Ottawa and Prince Edward Island, and found them to vary between 2 and 81 parts per billion (ppb).
Formaldehyde is highly toxic in high concentrations -- such as those that might result from a workplace accident -- and carcinogenic in smaller doses. Even in doses below those considered safe for cancer risk, the chemical is still a potent irritant and allergen that can lead to serious health problems.
In toxic concentrations (25,000 ppb or higher), formaldehyde can severely irritate the upper respiratory tract, potentially leading to a swelling or fluid accumulation in the lungs known as pulmonary edema. These symptoms may not manifest until hours after exposure, but can be potentially fatal due to oxygen deprivation. This is not a hazard in normal household exposure, but can be a risk for workers in factories or other workplaces that use formaldehyde.
Cancer and asthma
Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer of the nasal tract in humans and laboratory animals and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the substance as a carcinogen (although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stops short of this, saying only that such an effect is "probable"). According to Health Canada, carcinogenic effects have been detected only at concentrations of thousands of parts per billion, but the International Labor Organization has set 300 ppb as the maximum safe exposure at any given time.
Even at the low concentrations found in the average home, formaldehyde can cause potentially serious symptoms. At concentrations above 50 ppb, formaldehyde can irritate the ear, nose and throat. Exposure to such concentrations over time increases the risk of developing asthma-like symptoms, such as wheezing and coughing. At concentrations above 100 ppb, formaldehyde exposure can cause watery eyes, headaches, a burning throat and difficulty breathing, even triggering an asthma attack.
Although there is some controversy about what levels of formaldehyde are most likely to produce serious health symptoms and most homes have concentrations far below the danger threshold, Health Canada still recommends that people reduce their formaldehyde exposure. The EPA has set 16 ppb as the maximum allowable concentration in building to be constructed for the agency.
Health Canada recommends that those wishing to limit their formaldehyde exposure prohibit any smoking in their home, and that they keep all wood-burning appliances well maintained. Fireplaces and wood stoves should be inspected regularly to make sure that no smoke is leaking into the house. Consumers should avoid running any kind of engine near their home, even in a garage or workshop that is attached to the house. Exhaust from automobiles, lawnmowers and other combustion engines contains not only formaldehyde, but other toxic chemicals as well.
Good ventilation will help keep the air in a home safer, particularly if any formaldehyde-containing products are in use. Keeping the humidity low will slow the rate at which such products expel the chemical.
Consumers who decide to buy items made out of fiberboard or particleboard should choose those that are coated with plastic laminate on all sides, or should seal off any still-open sides to prevent formaldehyde from seeping out. The agency recommends shopping for products made without formaldehyde-containing glues. (That's my recommendation as well: Don't buy particleboard furniture at all!)
Finally, all crease-free (permanent press) fabrics, including sheets and clothing, should be washed and aired out before the first use -- or ideally, even before bringing them into the house.
Although formaldehyde gas is colorless, it has a sharp and distinctive odor at high concentrations. Lower concentrations, however, are unlikely to be obviously noticeable. Those concerned about formaldehyde concentrations in their home, school or workplace can buy home testing kits online or from certain distributors.
Formaldehyde in diet soda
Now that you've learned about all the health risks associated with formaldehyde, would you be surprised to learn that millions of consumers are actually drinking it? It's true: Formaldehyde is one of the chemical byproducts of aspartame breakdown in soft drinks. When diet sodas are stored at higher temperature (generally over 95 degrees F), the chemical sweetener aspartame begins to break down, forming small amounts of formaldehyde right in the soda can. When this chemical is swallowed by consumers, it becomes a potent neurotoxin.
This explains why aspartame is currently responsible for 75% of all consumer complaints to the FDA. It also explains why diet sodas are linked to seizures, blindness, fuzzy vision, headaches and other neurological disorders.
Want to be healthy? Don't drink formaldehyde. And don't inhale it, either.
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