What is formaldehyde? Where is it used? How to protect the respiratory system?

Who has never heard of formaldehyde? It is, in fact, a well-known chemical substance, belonging to the family of volatile, organic compounds, used in many sectors with which we come into contact daily. This is what needs to be known about it.

What is formaldehyde

Formaldehyde, also known as formalin, is a chemical substance which is found in a gaseous state at room temperature but which is usually marketed in a liquid state because it is soluble in water. It is a chemical compound which derives from the oxidation of methanol. Despite the high health risks this substance poses, it is widely used in the industrial sector and consequently also commonly found in peoples’ homes.

Its most common use is in the manufacture of synthetic resins i.e. furniture manufacture, shavings, plywood, carpets and curtains. It can also be found in certain cosmetic products such as nail varnish, shampoo, hair dye, hair straightening products etc. It must be pointed out, though, that scientific evidence has shown that it does not cause any damage to human health if used in very small quantities, in fact, current legislation has set its use at a limit of 0,2%. The use of formaldehyde in cosmetics is justified by the fact that, as it is a bactericide, it also has a preservative function. When buying cosmetics, however, it is advisable to check the product label because formaldehyde has been on the carcinogenic substances list since 2004.

The risks workers face and possible solutions

Formaldehyde toxicity increases exponentially during product processing – in fact, high percentages of this substance and high working temperatures are a source of photochemical pollution.  When formaldehyde is inhaled the health hazard to workers is mainly in the rhino-pharyngeal area, where cancer may develop. In addition, formaldehyde also leads to damage to the blood cells and the risk of contracting leukaemia. For this reason, in companies where formaldehyde is used, workers need to undergo periodic medical check-ups and employers need to keep registers of worker health reports which they send to local Occupational Health Authorities every 3 years. Furthermore, in order to prevent occupational health issues, legislation specifies that people working with formaldehyde be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment.

The type of protective device to be chosen should be appropriate for the protection of the sensitive parts of the human body. In fact, it is usually the upper respiratory tract which is affected by formaldehyde and this then leads to contamination of blood. It is therefore necessary to provide respiratory protective devices (RPD) to protect the workers’ respiratory system . The devices are to have filters which block formaldehyde particles and should always be kept efficient, replacing them when periodic maintenance no longer ensures optimal filtering capacity. The RPD used to protect workers from formaldehyde should also be safe and thus be equipped with a system to keep the visor demisted to ensure visibility at all times and also ensure that the exhaled and any excess air is expelled allowing for comfortable breathing for the entire work shift even under strain.