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Updated: April 1, 2014 13:11 IST

What’s in the air?

Preethi Sukumaran
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Power plants release formaldehyde into the air
Power plants release formaldehyde into the air

Formaldehyde, now classified as a known carcinogen, has become an inseparable part of our lives and the air we breathe…

Continuing the discussion on indoor air quality, we will now examine one major concern; formaldehyde. Most of us have endured formaldehyde in school. Also called formalin or methanol; it is an organic compound commonly used to preserve animal specimens in the lab. It has an unpleasant odour that does not go away easily. In fact medical students commonly complain that the smell of formaldehyde stays on them for the entire duration of their anatomy semester.

However the formaldehyde encounter does not end in the lab. It is now clear that formaldehyde is a pervasive toxin that enters our homes in several ways and refuses to leave. In high concentrations, formaldehyde induces health risks such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, wheezing, coughing, fatigue, skin rash and severe allergic reactions.

We often get a sharp, acrid “chemical” smell when we open the wrapper on new garments and this smell requires a few rounds of washing to eliminate. This is formaldehyde in combination with urea used by textile companies to make garments more wrinkle resistant, stain resistant and also use it as a disinfectant.

If you enter furniture stores today (especially air-conditioned spaces) you will be greeted with a similar smell. Again, this smell comes from pressed wood, particle boards and MDF, treated with formaldehyde, which are used in place of real wood to make furniture. In fact people who spend an hour shopping in these stores often report of headaches, tired eyes and sniffles. This is due to the poor indoor air quality in these spaces and the main culprit is the constant release of formaldehyde vapours.

Cosmetics and paper products are another pervasive source inside our homes. Deodorants, disinfectants, fabric dyes, sanitary napkins, paper towels, professional hair styling products in salons, shampoos (including the “gentle” baby shampoo) are all sources that leak formaldehyde into the air. The shocker is, if you read the label of a shampoo bottle you will not find formaldehyde listed as an ingredient. It is in fact released by the preservatives used in the product.

Even when we step outside the home, the air we breathe contains formaldehyde released from automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke, power plants and manufacturing facilities. Why should we be concerned about formaldehyde? There are two reasons.

One, it is commonly found in homes in a number of products. Two, many governments across the world are waking up to the dangers of formaldehyde and have declared it as a known carcinogen.

In 2011, scientists in the US issued warnings declaring formaldehyde as a carcinogen. The statement also expressed concern over the alarming levels of this chemical both indoors and outdoors.

Government agencies spend considerable time, resources and effort to take an official stand on the safety of a particular product. Private agencies, citizens and media often drive the discussion which is then picked up by the government before they can issue the official position. Therefore when government agencies (of any country) start worrying about formaldehyde, citizens need to take note. The Indian central Pollution Control Board has also taken cues from the US Environmental Protection Agency and lists formaldehyde as a hazardous air pollutant. I will conclude here with the promise of ideas that any concerned citizen can implement for better indoor air quality.


Take a deep breathJuly 27, 2013

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