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People who live in industrialized nations spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. This puts them at risk for negative health effects of indoor air pollution. There are a variety of sources of indoor air pollution, ranging from decaying uranium in the soil beneath the building to secondhand smoke from tobacco products.

Formaldehyde is not a chemical that immediately comes to mind when thinking of possible indoor air pollution sources. But in fact it is widely used in the manufacture of building materials and household products.

Formaldehyde is present in clothing and draperies (it adds permanent press), in adhesives and glues, and acts as a preservative in paints. Pressed wood products are likely to be a significant source of household formaldehyde. Pressed wood products include particleboard used in flooring and cabinetry, hardwood plywood used as decorative paneling, and fiberboard in furniture.

Older homes (built before 1985) could face greater risks of formaldehyde concentrations. Newer constructions must meet newer requirements that limit formaldehyde emissions. Homes built during the 1970s often used insulation containing high levels of formaldehyde. However, formaldehyde emissions usually decrease with age, so the most outstanding concentrations may have already occurred.

Health effects of formaldehyde include watery eyes, burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty breathing. High levels can trigger asthma attacks. It is possible that formaldehyde causes cancer.

To begin reducing exposure to formaldehyde, ask about the formaldehyde content of building materials and furniture products before buying them. Research has shown that it is possible to limit formaldehyde emissions by coating wood products with polyurethane. Use of dehumidifiers and air conditioning can also slow the formaldehyde emission rate.