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Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde (HCHO) is a gas at room temperature with a pungent odor. Formalin is a 34-38% solution of formaldehyde in water, stabilized with a 10-15% solution of methanol.  It is one of the most commonly used preservatives, but it can cause serious health effects including eye burns, blindness, and nasal cancer. The OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.1048, as know as the formaldehyde standard, mandates training and limits exposure. The GML SOP for Formaldehyde can be viewed as a pdf.

Exposure levels

The standard includes two permissible exposure limits (PELs) and an action level for formaldehyde

Formaldehyde Exposure Limits
Formaldehyde
Level (air)
Type of Limit Exposure Time
Duration
> 0.1 ppm
Exposure threshold
Any period
> 0.5 ppm
"Action" limit
8 hr TWA
> 0.75 ppm
Permissible exposure limit
8 hr TWA
> 2 ppm
Short-term exposure limit
15 min TWA

Handling and Storage

Store formaldehyde in a cool, well-ventilated area away from incompatible materials and keep away from heat. Keep containers tightly closed and ground containers when transferring. Empty containers retain product residue and can be dangerous. Avoid contact with the eyes, skin, or clothing. Use formaldehyde only with adequate ventilation and do not breathe vapor or mist. After handling please wash all equipment thoroughly. Remove contaminated clothing and wash before reuse.

Personal Protective Equipment

Specific protective clothing and equipment shall be selected based upon the form of formaldehyde to be encountered and the hazard to be prevented. All eye and skin contact with liquids containing 1% or more of formaldehyde shall be prevented by the use of chemical protective clothing made of material impervious to formaldehyde and the use of other personal protective equipment, such as goggles and face shields, as appropriate to the operation. Clothing selection will be made using chemical clothing resistance guides found in manufacturer's literature. (Neoprene, Nitrile, rubber and PVC have all been rated as “excellent” for resistance to formalin solutions) Employers shall comply with the provisions of OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132 (Personal Protective Equipment), OSHA 29 CFR 1910.133 (Eye and Face Protection) and the College of Charleston Personal Protective Equipment Program. Personal Protective Equipment must be stored in a clean and sanitary manner.

Hazards

Formaldehyde is an irritant and a sensitizing agent that can cause allergy symptoms at very low levels.  It is normally present in air at low levels of approximately 0.06 ppm. Levels of 0.1 ppm can result in acute health effects, but sensitive individuals may show symptoms at lower doses.  The likelihood and severity of acute health effects may increase with each exposure.

  • Inhalation – May cause sore throat, coughing, and shortness of breath. Causes irritation and sensitization of the respiratory tract. Concentrations of 25 to 30 ppm cause severe respiratory tract injury leading to pulmonary edema and pneumonitis. May be fatal in high concentrations. Perception of formaldehyde by odor becomes less sensitive with time as one adapts to it. If exposed, remove victim to fresh air and get medical aid immediately.
  • Ingestion - Can cause severe abdominal pain, violent vomiting, headache, and diarrhea. Larger doses may produce decreased body temperature, pain in the digestive tract, shallow respiration, weak irregular pulse, unconsciousness and death. Methanol component affects the optic nerve and may cause blindness. If ingested, do not induce vomiting, give 2-4 cups of milk or water, and keep head lower than hips. Keep person warm and at rest and immediately seek medical assistance.
  • Skin – Toxic. May cause irritation to skin with redness, pain, and possibly burn because it is a severe skin irritant and sensitizer. Skin absorption may occur with symptoms paralleling those from ingestion. Contact causes white discoloration, smarting, cracking and scaling.  Prolonged and repeated contact can cause numbness and a hardening or tanning of the skin.  Previously exposed persons may react to future exposure with an allergic dermatitis or hives. If exposed, immediately flush skin with water for at least 15 minutes, remove all contaminated clothing and shoes, and seek medical help.
  • Eye contact –Vapors in the eye can cause injuries ranging from temporary discomfort to severe, permanent corneal clouding and loss of vision.  Severity depends on concentration and splashes may cause irreversible eye damage.
  • Chronic effects from formaldehyde exposure include genetic mutations and cancer.  Menstrual disorders and secondary sterility has occurred in women as a result of chronic exposure.  Refer to Appendix A for more details of acute and chronic exposures.

If an individual has an acute exposure to formaldehyde and begins to show symptoms, usually removing that individual from the exposure will allow for recovery without any persisting effects.  It is chronic exposure to small doses of formaldehyde that is a major cause for study and concern.  The effects of exposure to differing concentrations vary from one individual to another.

Formaldehyde Compliance Requirements
Formaldehyde
Concentration
Exposure Time
Duration
> 0.1 ppm
Specific training and information
> 0.5 ppm
Training plus medical surveillance & periodic exposure monitoring
> 0.75 ppm
Above plus: identify regulated areas, respiratory protection, use engineering and work practice controls to reduce exposures below PEL.
> 2 ppm
Same as above

Additional Reources