Formidable Formaldehyde

A HUMAN CARCINOGEN: Formaldehyde — a colourless, highly toxic and flammable gas at room temperature — is a toxic substance widely used in many industries. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C, formaldehyde is used in glues and resins, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, building materials, automobile parts, embalming and laboratories.

Workers who are at risk of exposure to formaldehyde include agricultural workers operating in confinement livestock production, employees who manufacture plastics, resins and foam insulation and beauticians who apply dyes and smoothing products, WorkSafeBC notes.

ADVERSE EFFECTS: Exposure to formaldehyde can irritate the skin, throat, lungs and eyes. Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can possibly lead to cancer. Exposure can occur through inhalation or absorption through the skin or eye as a liquid, according to information from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in Ottawa.

As a potential occupational carcinogen, ingesting formaldehyde causes corrosive burning of the mouth, throat and digestive tract with vomiting of tissue and blood. Ingested formaldehyde converts to formic acid, causing metabolic acidosis, liver and kidney damage, jaundice and swelling of body tissues. Convulsions, central nervous system depression and death can follow.

WORKING SAFELY: As with any hazardous substances, employers must take reasonable precautions and provide Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training specific to this chemical. A fact sheet on formaldehyde by CAUT lists the following precautions when working with formaldehyde:

  • Adhere to Material Safety Data Sheet precautions and comply with applicable regulations;
  • Avoid using formaldehyde near open flames, heat, hot surfaces, sparks and other ignition sources as the substance is extremely flammable;
  • For large-scale work, consider installing leak and fire-detection equipment with a suitable, automatic fire-suppression system;
  • Use non-sparking ventilation systems, approved explosion- proof equipment and intrinsically safe electrical systems in areas of use;
  • Post “No Smoking” signs;
  • Avoid contacting formaldehyde without protection;
  • Use in well-ventilated areas and away from storage areas;
  • Inspect containers for damage or leaks prior to handling;
  • Label and inspect containers regularly, keeping containers tightly sealed when not in use;
  • Make emergency equipment for fires, spills and leaks readily available;
  • Report signs of illness immediately to supervisor; and
  • Seek medical attention for all exposures.

HANDLING AND STORAGE: Formaldehyde solutions must be stored in well-ventilated locations away from sunlight and ignition sources or flammable materials. Formaldehyde is also incompatible with strong acids, amines, ammonia, aniline, disulfides, gelatine, iodine, magnesite, phenol, tannins, copper, iron and silver salts, notes a prevention guide on formaldehyde in the workplace by the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRRST) in Quebec. Workplaces where this substance is present are recommended to have respiratory protective equipment, a water source with a high flow rate, safety showers and eye showers available nearby.

SUBSTITUTION METHODS: Depending on the application, substituting formaldehyde with other products should be considered whenever possible:

  • In the manufacture of panels and other wood products where formaldehyde is used as glue, the use of resins without or at lower formaldehyde emission rates can be considered for particleboard and beams.
  • In wood furniture varnishing, different types of coatings exist: cellulose nitrate, acrylic, ultraviolet drying, polyester, polyurethane and powder coatings. Several factors affect the choice, such as the type of furniture, the desired finish, cost of equipment replacement and current environmental regulations.
  • Other commercial products in place of formaldehyde are available for use as a fixation agent in pathology, embalming fluid or crease-resistant finish for fabrics, although the data on these products’ performances are incomplete.

Apart from substitution, local ventilation is the preferred control method when the emission source is well identified or contained and isolated. Local ventilation must also be available on any tasks that expose workers to short emissions, IRRST advises.

General or dilution ventilation, which is recommended where emission sources are diffused, dilutes pollutants by introducing a sufficient flow of outdoor air. Designing an efficient system requires a good understanding of air-flow patterns in the building, as well as consideration of flow rates and air flows like velocity, direction and temperature, which will vary with ambient conditions and can reduce dilution.

Engineering controls must be complemented by training. Employee information and training on the risks associated with formaldehyde, emission sources, the most polluting tasks, means of control and PPE are also key aspects of controlling exposure.

WHAT IF: Preventive steps should significantly reduce the risk of accidental exposure to formaldehyde. But if exposure has occurred, employees must evacuate the area immediately and isolate the hazard area. Use personal protective equipment (PPE) as required, ventilate the area and eliminate ignition sources, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario advises.

Do not touch spilled material and dike the spilled product to prevent runoff. Stop or reduce leak if it is safe to do so. Contain and soak up the spill with absorbent that does not react with the spilled product. Place the used absorbent into suitable, covered, labelled containers for disposal. Flush the spill area. Last but not least, report spills to local health, safety and environmental authorities as required.

FIRST AID: If an exposure has already occurred, the following first-aid measures are recommended by CAUT:

  • Inhalation: Don appropriate PPE, remove the source of contamination or move the victim to an area with fresh air. If breathing is difficult, trained personnel should administer oxygen. Keep the victim quiet and still, and transport the victim to emergency facilities immediately.
  • Skin: Wear protective chemical clothing if necessary before removing contaminated clothing, shoes and leather products. Flush exposed skin continuously with lukewarm, gently flowing water for at least 30 minutes. Send the victim to a hospital immediately.
  • Eyes: Flush exposed eyes with lukewarm, gently flowing water for at least 30 minutes, holding the eyelid open. Transport to emergency facilities immediately.
  • Ingestion: Rinse the victim’s mouth thoroughly with water and do not induce vomiting. If vomiting occurs, rinse the mouth with water. Seek immediate medical treatment.