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University of Colorado Denver

Environmental Health and Safety, University of Colorado Denver


What you need to know

Formaldehyde exposure presents a health risk.  Due to the prevalence of use at AMC and formaldehyde-specific regulations, the University has established a formaldehyde control program. Program elements include the identification, risk assessment, and medical monitoring of employees with higher level exposures that present a specific health risk requiring surveillance.  However, anyone using formaldehyde or "formalin" should become familiar with the inherent risks of formaldehyde exposure and methods for controlling exposure.  The information here will inform both employees that must be enrolled in a formaldehyde medical surveillance program and individuals that use lower levels of formaldehyde-containing materials.

Although the term formaldehyde describes various mixtures of formaldehyde, water, and alcohol, the term “formalin” is used to describe a saturated solution of formaldehyde dissolved in water, typically with another agent, most commonly methanol, added to stabilize the solution. Formalin is typically 37% formaldehyde by weight (40% by volume) and 6-13% methanol by volume in water. The formaldehyde component provides the disinfectant effects of formalin. (OSHA, 2011)

At room temperature formaldehyde is a nearly colorless, highly irritating gas with a strong odor. Formalin solutions may smell like methanol. Solutions that contain phenol, such as embalming fluids have an extremely pungent odor that "sticks" to permeable materials. Formaldehyde vapors are slightly heavier than air. It is flammable as a liquid (depending on concentrations).

 Carcinogen and Sensitizer

In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services named formaldehyde a known human carcinogen. Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde has been associated with cancers of the lung, nasopharynx, oropharynx, and nasal passages (nose and throat) and some studies suggest formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans.
Formaldehyde is a sensitizing agent that can cause an immune system response upon initial exposure. Acute exposure is highly irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat and can make anyone exposed cough and wheeze. Subsequent exposure may cause severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. Ingestion of formaldehyde can be fatal, and long-term exposure to low levels in the air or on the skin can cause asthma-like respiratory problems (respiratory sensitization with repeated exposures) and skin irritation such as dermatitis and itching. (OSHA, 2011). Skin exposure may result in eczema or hives.
Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions or those with a history of exposure to formaldehyde may have a more immediate and/or severe response to low concentrations. An existing condition of asthma is not necessarily associated with increased sensitivity to formaldehyde.
When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm, some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery or ichy eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no reaction to the same level of exposure (National Cancer Institute, 2011, OSHA, 2011).
Eye injury (e.g., splash) can include corneal opacities, corneal necrosis or ulceration, perforation, and acute glaucoma (can cause blindness). These effects may be delayed for 12 hours or more. For splashes, the severity of eye injury is dependent on the concentration of formaldehyde in solution and the amount of time lapsed before emergency procedures (eye washing) and medical care.
Symptoms (dependent on means of exposures) can include:
  • · skin irritation;
  • · dry, flaking and itching skin;
  • · respiratory irritation;
  • · coughing; wheezing;
  • · watery or itchy eyes;
  • · burning sensation in eyes, nose, and throat;
  • · itchy, runny, or stuffy nose;
  • · dry or sore throat;
  • · nausea; and headache.


Symptoms of asthma include chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing.


 Formaldehyde is naturally produced as a metabolic by-product by all living organisms and is present in your blood. Due to its high enzymatic activity, the ability to metabolize formaldehyde in the respiratory tract very efficient and no detectable levels are present in the blood after exposure beyond what is present naturally (Golden, 2011). This makes detection of exposure episodes difficult. Medical surveillance for exposure is limited to observing changes in health conditions annually, primarily through review of employee responses to medical questionnaires. Based on responses, an employee could be referred for additional assessment.

Enrollment is based on the level of potential exposure. Employees with potential exposures of 0.5 parts per million (ppm) and above are required to be included in the program. Those individuals will fill out a Formaldehyde Medical Questionnaire annually and EHS will conduct sampling of the work environment and specific employee exposure levels every six months.

Individuals are identified for potential enrollment based on their responses to general annual health questionnaires. If you do not fill out an annual health questionnaire, or you did not identify your potential formaldehyde use on your form, you may contact EHS for additional information or fill out a formaldehyde follow up questionnaire and send it to EHS Industrial Hygiene.
How Exposures Occur
Formaldehyde is an irritant and sensitizer by inhalation and skin contact.  Individuals can become exposed to formaldehyde by contact to solutions and contaminated surfaces; handling of preserved specimens or cadavers; inhalation of solutions or materials (off-gassing formaldehyde) that contains, or is contaminated with formaldehyde (including clothing, shoes, and equipment); and through splashes to skin and eyes.

Poor sanitation measures may result in ingestion.  Means of ingestion can be direct or associated with secondary means such contamination of hands, eating utensils, etc.  Drinking formaldehyde solutions can cause severe burns to the throat and stomach.  Ingestion of 30 milliliters (about 2 tablespoons) can cause death. 

 Preventing Exposure

University labs are well ventilated, but area ventilation may not be enough depending on the nature of the work and concentration of solutions. Work within a fume hood whenever possible, especially when:

¨ mixing or transferring solutions,
¨ working with high concentrations or large volumes in open containers,
¨ aerosolizing solutions,
¨ heating solutions, or 
¨ spreading solutions over large surface area.
Also Important:
· Wear appropriate gloves (Nitrile or latex disposal for dilute solutions and where hands are not submerged in liquid.  For higher concentrations Butyl or second non-disposable outer glove Nitrile glove is recommended.  Always check the glove manufacturer recommended use chart.) 
· Wash hands after handling, whenever you leave the lab, and always before eating.
· Don’t wear PPE (gloves, scrubs, lab coat) outside of the lab/work area.
· Keep contaminated clothing in Ziploc bags and launder separately.
· Keep solutions and contaminated media in closed containers.
Some areas or activities may require the use of a respirator.
If you have questions about the appropriate control measures, contact Environmental Health and Safety (EHS).  For additional information, contact EHS and ask to speak to an Industrial Hygiene representative (303-724-0345).
Signs and Labels

The following wording is placed on containers of formaldehyde solutions:
Respiratory Sensitization
Cancer Hazard
May Cause Eye Damage

Signage at entrances to areas where formaldehyde solutions are used in larger quantities or concentrations, or depending on the nature and extent of activity and storage:
Exposure Levels
The permissible occupational exposure limit for formaldehyde is 0.75 parts per million (ppm) as an 8 hour time weighted average.  You are required to be enrolled in an occupational surveillance program if you have a potential exposure at or above 0.5 ppm.  Serious acute affects begin for some at 10 ppm.  Levels that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) begin at 100 ppm according the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), while the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health considers 20 ppm IDLH.
The University EHS industrial hygiene staff conducts sampling and/or risk assessments to determine your exposure level. 

​Recently the University remodelled the gross anatomy labs and installed down draft tables to ensure that students and faculty have a safe learning environment free from recognized hazards. 



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