Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical widely used to make home building products. Most formaldehyde produced in the United States is for the manufacture of resins, such as urea-formaldehyde, used to make the adhesives for pressed wood products, such as particleboard, furniture, paneling, cabinets, and other products. Formaldehyde is also commonly used as a preservative in medical laboratories, mortuaries, and consumer products, including some hair smoothing and straightening products. It is also a by-product of automobile combustion and is produced in small amounts by most living organisms, including humans.

How are people exposed to formaldehyde?

People are exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace and in their home environment, but the highest levels are found in work settings where formaldehyde is used or produced. Exposure to formaldehyde can occur in numerous industries and professions, such as manufacturers of formaldehyde and formaldehyde-based resins, woodworking, and furniture making. Morticians and laboratory workers may also be exposed to formaldehyde.


The general population is exposed to formaldehyde by breathing contaminated indoor or outdoor air and from tobacco smoke. Automobile and other combustion sources, such as woodstoves, incinerators, refineries, forest fires, and fumes released from new construction or home-finishing products, are some of the major sources of airborne formaldehyde. Other consumer goods, including some hair smoothing and straightening products used in salons, cleaning agents, glues,

and adhesives, may contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde levels can be higher in indoor air than in outdoor air.  

Health Effects: Can exposure to formaldehyde cause cancer?

The Report on Carcinogens ( , prepared by the

National Toxicology Program ( , listed formaldehyde as

a known human carcinogen in its Report on Carcinogens (2011). Formaldehyde was first listed in the Report in 1981 as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence from studies in experimental animals. Since that time, additional cancer studies in humans have been published, and the listing status was changed to known to be a human carcinogen in 2011.

How can I prevent exposure to this substance?

Use lower-emitting pressed wood products, such as those that are labeled CARB (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant, or made with ULEF (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde) or NAF (no-added formaldehyde) resins. Try to learn as much as you can about the manufacturer’s products visit the store where you bought the product.

  • Increase ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home.
  • Open windows and use fans to bring in fresh air. Use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels.
  • Employers who use formaldehyde in their workplaces must follow the requirements in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard on formaldehyde.
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