Formaldehyde in Chemical Laboratories - WorldOfChemicals

Toxic Effects of Formaldehyde in Chemical Laboratories


Formaldehyde is the simplest form of aldehydes; whose molecular formula is CH2O. This is a naturally occurring organic compound in the gaseous state has a suffocating odor with no color. Normally, it is present in an aqueous form with a concentration of 37%. About 6-13% of methanol is added to formaldehyde because of its polymerization tendency. The resulting solution is known as formalin, which is used as a disinfectant, preservative and embalming fluid.

Formaldehyde is used in building materials, adhesives and cosmetics. It is an important chemical used widely in laboratories for research and synthesis of other compounds. There are various health risks involved from formaldehyde exposure. Therefore, this chemical compound must be handled safely with precautions.


Acute Health Effects

There are many short-term health effects arising from exposure to formaldehyde in laboratories. Formaldehyde is a flammable colorless gas with a strong suffocating odor. It is a powerful allergen and irritant, which can irritate the mucous membranes. Formaldehyde vapors can cause pain, roughness and burns. The toxic chemical compound is capable of being absorbed through the skin. Prolonged exposure can cause dermatitis, affecting face, eyelids, arms and neck.

Formaldehyde can be noticeable even in small proportions lesser than 1 ppm. When the concentration of formaldehyde is above 5 ppm, it will cause severe coughing and tearing from the eyes along with upper respiratory tract irritation. Prolonged exposure to low concentrations of formaldehyde could lead to fatiguing of senses due to its sensitizing nature.


Chronic Health Effects

In chemical laboratories, employees dealing with formaldehyde can inflict chronic health issues upon themselves. Long term exposure can lead to cancers, central nervous system depression, respiratory system impairment, pulmonary sensitization, liver and kidney damage. 

The neuropsychological effects resulting from its exposure have altered the sense of balance, loss of concentration, sleep disorders, mood alterations and memory deficits.

Unfortunately, laboratory personnel claim to enduring the effects initially, after which the effects subside as per them. On the flipside, they don't realize the fact that they are still being exposed to the toxic chemical compound. 


Exposure Prevention

The authorities must ascertain, how and where formaldehyde is used in their lab facility. All active areas must be inspected for odors. The nature of formaldehyde products used must be noted and the laboratory personnel should be interviewed on their procedures. Chemical compound's exposure to laboratory personnel must be monitored through apt methods. This can be done by a competent industrial hygienist or a similar in house professional, if available.

OSHA has recommended an action level of 0.5 ppm and a permissible exposure limit of 0.75 ppm for eight-hour periods. The short-term exposure limit is 2 ppm, which is set for 15 minutes. Once in every six months, laboratory personnel exposed to 0.5 ppm or more, must be monitored.

The monitoring results must be reviewed and the employees who are exposed above the limits must be enrolled in the medical surveillance program. The medical history information should be collected, and a baseline physical must be conducted. 

All laboratory personnel from the chemical industry must be provided with health and safety training. Training must emphasize on the signs and symptoms of formaldehyde exposure and the possible health effects, adequate PPE, monitoring, exposure controls, first aid and medical surveillance.


Chemical laboratories should have well-maintained engineering systems and must be properly designed. The chemical industry must prioritize the wellbeing of employees involved in laboratories. Formaldehyde is an essential chemical compound used in research and finds many other applications. With safe procedures, careful planning, exposure controls and PPE in place, a safe working environment can be provided for the employees and safely use formaldehyde. 

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