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Formaldehyde is the Unsuspected Air Polluter

One of the most secretive, unsuspecting, and prolific pollutants is formaldehyde. Because of its mysterious existence, many of us are exposed to formaldehyde daily and don’t even know it. This sneaky and hazardous chemical is a suspected carcinogen and is found in everyday products such as perfume, particleboard, laminate flooring, glues, pharmaceuticals, drapes, clothing, kitchen cabinets, paints, carpet padding, textiles, disinfectants, wood smoke, and gas cooking. It is ever-present and prolific in our daily lives.

Most governing bodies or environmental standards groups suggest formaldehyde concentrations not exceed 80–100 ppb for short-term exposure and 40–50 ppb for long-term exposures. Most homes test higher than these levels. For occupational exposure (work setting), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit of 16 ppb.

Health Symptoms
Exposure to formaldehyde can cause symptoms that can easily go undetected or attributed to other causes. The most common symptoms of acute exposure include irritation of the throat, nose, eyes, and skin. These irritations can potentially exacerbate asthma symptoms and other respiratory illnesses. Long term or chronic exposure may also cause runny nose, bronchitis, and obstructive lung disease. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans” related to nasopharyngeal cancer. These hazards should be a wake-up call to reduce or eliminate formaldehyde exposure in every aspect of our environment.

Formaldehyde Reduction

To reduce your exposure to formaldehyde in the home, there are several solutions:

  • Identify & remove/seal the offending materials. This is the most effective and least costly solution in the long run. While there have always been various methods for measuring formaldehyde in the ambient air, there has not been a definitive test for actual surface testing in the field. So, while most IAQ specialists can determine that there IS formaldehyde in the air, they cannot say with great certainty WHERE in your environment it’s coming from. The most likely suspects are new items. New cabinets, new bedspread, new rug, new paint, new hardwood floor, etc.


  • Increase fresh air entry into the home (to dilute the formaldehyde). This can be accomplished manually (opening a few windows 1” on opposite sides) or mechanically (by installing a heat recovery ventilator or HRV, which brings in fresh air through the furnace). The caveat with these is that they are typically installed with flex ducts to and from the outdoors, which causes mold growth in a short period of time (6-12 months based on hundreds of mold tests conducted in these ducts), so they should be installed using sheet metal ducts or the flex ducts should be replaced often since they can’t really be cleaned appropriately.

  • Install a Potassium Permanganate (P.P.) filter on the furnace and operate the furnace fan in the “ON” mode instead of “AUTO.” These filters can be made to order by providing the dimensions of your current furnace filter. Charcoal filters are effective for absorbing other chemicals but P.P. filters are needed for formaldehyde. If you later decide to do a VOC test for your home and it is found that the VOC levels are elevated as well, then you could switch to a filter with a combination of charcoal for the VOCs and P.P. for the formaldehyde.
  • Seal offending surfaces with AFM Safecoat Products:
    • SAFE SEAL for raw particleboard and oriented strand board (OSB)
    • HARD SEAL for already varnished surfaces but not flooring
    • POLYURESEAL for flooring 
  • Operate an air purifier with charcoal and P.P. such as the Foust 160R2 for smaller rooms like bedrooms or the or Series400 for larger rooms like the living room. This method is the least effective.
  • If the carpeting is the culprit, SafeChoice Carpet Seal (an AFM Product) can be used to block the outgassing.