The controversy surrounding formaldehyde regulation

by Dann Albright on June 16, 2015

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Formaldehyde is a common chemical agent used in a wide range of industries, from woodworking to embalming. You may know it as methanal, methylene glycol, Formadon, Forma-Ray, or Formalaz, or you may just be familiar with its distinctive unpleasant smell.

This substance has been getting some attention around the world lately, and understanding the issues at stake can help you stay on the right side of the law when you use it.

Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" used formaldehyde to preserve this shark

Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” used formaldehyde to preserve a 14ft shark

Formaldehyde: useful, but dangerous

If you’re not familiar with formaldehyde, you might underestimate just how common it is; it’s used in the manufacture of wood resins, composites, insulation, wallpaper, personal grooming products, automobiles, paint, bonded wood products, inks, building materials, and wrinkle-resistant fabrics. It’s also commonly used as an embalming agent.

Its adhesive and disinfectant properties make it a common choice in many industries, woodworking especially.

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MDF with Formaldehyde is a common site on construction sites and often used in manufacturing furniture

 

While you might not come into contact with these materials on a regular basis, you could still face exposure to the chemical from manufacturing processes or even onsite when common timber materials like MDF are used. The only sure way to know if you’re being exposed to formaldehyde is to test for it, or get MSDS sheets from your supplier.

Although formaldehyde is a very useful substance, it also comes with hazards. In addition to being highly toxic, it’s irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, and it’s also classified as very likely to be a carcinogen with repeated exposure. Both workers and consumers may experience irritation; some manufacturing processes require the use of formaldehyde, and many products that have formaldehyde in them may release the gaseous form of the chemical.

Is formaldehyde regulated?

The United States government and regulating agencies are currently embroiled in a battle with manufacturers and politicians over the regulation of formaldehyde: regulators want stricter testing protocols, but manufacturers and the people who represent them caution that more stringent testing could put jobs at risk.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to pass regulation on the substance for over five years, and has faced a great deal of backlash from members of the industry and lobbyists, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be letting up anytime soon.

While the situation in the UK isn’t quite as divisive, there are some things to be aware of. Formaldehyde is listed as a class 2/3 carcinogen, and falls under the regulations on carcinogenic substances. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Human Health (COSHH) legislation limits the workplace exposure limit to 2 parts per million, although eye irritation can take place at a much lower .01 parts per million.

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In comparison to the United States’ .75ppm limit, the UK regulations are relatively lax—and a number of companies active in the UK are looking to keep it that way. DuPont, for example, has a history of defending the use of formaldehyde in its products and fighting against a legislative crackdown. And the Irish funeral industry has been vocal in their opposition to the further regulation of formaldehyde.

Chemical distributors and manufacturers, as well as associated lobbies, were also involved in battling the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, which increases the registration and documentation requirements for hazardous substances, including formaldehyde.

Some European countries have gone further and limited the inclusion of potentially formaldehyde-releasing substances; for example, cosmetics and personal care items in Sweden cannot contain these materials. Imported products manufactured in other countries—including China—generally have lower formaldehyde amounts than those products sent to the US.

As you can see, the overall picture of formaldehyde regulation is complicated. It’s also quite unclear how it will progress and change in the future.

Stay safe and up-to-date

The best option available is to use alternatives, instead of MDF, use Low Emission Ecologique MDF which looks and feels like MDF, weighs the same amount and has the same level of absorbency, however it does not contain the Formaldehyde. Many main contracting sites around the UK are already insisting on non-formaldehyde MDF already, but it seems we need to do more promote a health work space whilst the regulations catch up.

No matter what happens next in formaldehyde regulation, it’s important to take as many steps as you can to make sure that you stay safe when you’re using it. Make sure that your workplace is tested regularly, and wear the proper protective equipment, including thick gloves, eye protection, operate local exhausts and always wear a respirator. Ensure your staff are kept upto date on safe working practices with regular toolbox talks and always complete a COSHH assessment when exposure is a potential.

Be aware what concentrations of chemicals are dangerous or lethal. Always minimize your exposure to chemicals and work within the permissible exposure limits for each substance when cutting Formaldehyde treated timber. Use appropriate administrative and engineering controls to prevent exposures in the first place.

 

 

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