What You Don't Know About Formaldehyde Will Leave You Floored

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WOMANThis one's the worst: "Formaldehyde Laced Laminate Flooring Causing Cancer." But there are plenty of close seconds. The hysterical headlines that you have been seeing in the news about a bad batch of wood laminate flooring from China might lead you to think that formaldehyde was spewing from the floor into your home in such vast quantities that it would quickly send you to a different sort of "home" where formaldehyde is present. Lots of it. (Hint: Six Feet Under) (Irony timeout: Why do I have this image of some guy tearing up his living room floor while smoking a cigarette, which has about a gazillion times more formaldehyde than whatever is in the floor?) But, if you do a little research, this panic turns into a big nothing. Here are some reasons why:

  • Not only do you consume formaldehyde every time you drink fruit juice, but it's already present in your body. Why? Because your body makes a very small amount of it because you need it. Even the ultra-cautious European Food Safety Authority acknowledges this: "Formaldehyde is an important metabolic intermediate that is physiologically present in all cells."
  • What happens if you drink a whole lot of fruit juice? Does it start piling up in your body? No way. Not even close. The half-life (the amount of time it takes for half of something to "go away") of formaldehyde is about one minute. This means that after five minutes, 97 percent of the formaldehyde is gone, and 99.9 percent after 10 minutes.
  • You cannot avoid the stuff anywhere. Most formaldehyde in the air comes from car exhaust, but a trip to a pristine forest will not set you free, since it is one of the volatile chemicals that is given off by trees. According to a comprehensive review in the journal Chemical Reviews, it has been detected in forests in Germany, Portugal, and in the Amazon, in concentrations that are not terribly different than what might be found in an old home. And, it has been detected high in the Alps, albeit in concentrations that are about 10 times lower than those in the forest.
  • From the same review, a decidedly unalarming statement: "Generally speaking, exposure to formaldehyde is higher indoors than outdoors."
  • Why is the concentration higher inside? The authors state the obvious: "This is mainly due to the stronger sources and low air exchange rates in the indoor environment."
  • Fine. Makes perfect sense, so it is also obvious that the testing of the vapors coming from the wood be done in an environment that simulates that of a house, right? Hardly:
  • FormaldehydeChamber

A stainless steel chamber used to measure formaldehyde emissions (Source: Chemistry Reviews)

  • That is sure one ugly house.
  • The CDC, which sounded the alarm in the first place, admits that its own numbers of projected deaths are wrong: "The estimated risk of cancer is 6-30 cases per 100,000 people. Because of the very conservative (health protective) nature of the models used in this analysis, the calculated risk is likely lower than our modeled estimate." (Emphasis mine)

Here's an educated guess: The actual number of deaths from indoor formaldehyde is probably closer to zero than 30. This is not to say that it is a benign chemical. It is not. It is rather toxic, irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat (but only at concentrations that are far higher than what you'll find in an average house), causes cancer in lab animals, and has been linked to certain cancers (especially nasopharyngeal) in people who are exposed to large amounts of it, mostly embalmers. The key thing and it is the same key that unlocks almost every chemical scare is dose, something that scaremongers typically ignore. Embalmers, and medical students who practically do laps in the stuff, are not dropping dead all over the place. You won't either. Relax. Have a seat. Maybe on the floor.