Almost everyone, at home,
work or in the community is
exposed to formaldehyde. It is
a colourless gas with a strong
and pungent odour which is
known to cause skin, eye and
respiratory damage, and which,
in sufficient doses, affects the
heart and lung function and
the menstrual cycle. It causes
allergic reactions and mental
disturbances and is a known
cause of several types of cancer.
Even very short term exposure to
formaldehyde irritates the eyes causing
pain, redness, blurred vision and severe
It can irritate the nose and throat
causing sneezing, soreness, coughing,
shortness of breath, headaches and
nausea. In severe cases of exposure to
elevated levels it can lead to
accumulation of fluid in the lung
Long term exposure causes
chronically impaired lung function, skin
hardening, swelling and flaking,
dermatitis, allergic eczema, and cancer.
Formaldehyde is a skin and
respiratory sensitiser. It is a sensitising
agent which can stimulate the body’s
immune response so that a subsequent
exposure to even a very small amount is
likely to trigger an allergic response.
Despite this evidence, in 1986 the
UK Industrial Injuries Advisory Council
rejected designation of formaldehyde as
a cause of occupational asthma
prescribed for disablement benefit.
Formaldehyde has also been shown
to cause sleep disturbance, impaired
memory, reduced concentration, nausea
and menstrual irregularity.
A known cause of cancer
The International Agency for Research
on Cancer, (IARC) which is part of the
World Health Organisation, has
designated formaldehyde as a known
cause of several types of throat and
In the UK formaldehyde has been
assigned a Maximum Exposure Limit
(MEL) of 2 parts per million (ppm).
Exposure to any substance for
which a MEL has been set must be kept
below that limit.
The MEL for formaldehyde is hard
to explain in the light of HSE’s own
toxicology review which found that eye
irritation can be caused by exposure to
levels as low as 0.01ppm, 200 tim