Bindu Shajan Perappadan

"Health care workers generally are unaware of its many ill effects"

Formaldehyde is used as a disinfectant and tissue fixate Not just hospitals, even homes are exposed to the dangers of formaldehyde "abuse"

NEW DELHI: It is known to be effective as a disinfectant and is widely used in hospitals and homes, but very few are aware that formaldehyde can throw up serious medical complications in case of chronic exposure.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, has designated formaldehyde as a known cause of several types of throat and nasal cancer.

In a recently concluded study of the use and awareness levels about the ill effects of formaldehyde among hospital staff in the Capital, non-government organisation Toxics Link found that health care workers were unaware of the health hazards and hence hardly took any precaution against any possible occupational exposure. "There was also little information about the fact that formaldehyde should never be stored near or used with hydrochloric acid because the two chemicals combine to form chloromethyl ether, which is a powerful cancer-causing agent,'' says Toxics Link Programme Officer Priti Mahesh.

Formaldehyde is used as a disinfectant and tissue fixate and is a colourless, flammable gas with a pungent odour. It is an anti-microbial bactericide and fungicide for maintenance of critical and semi-critical hospital equipment, floors, walls and other hospital areas.

The study also indicates that not just hospitals, even homes are exposed to the dangers of formaldehyde "abuse". Possible sources of formaldehyde at home include adhesives, glues, air fresheners, cigarette smoke, cosmetics, dye, paints, furniture, fixtures, cabinet floor polishers, household liquid scouring cleaners and toilet cleaners.

The most probable route of human exposure to formaldehyde is inhalation. Inhaling it can cause symptoms ranging from mild irritation to severe difficulty in breathing. "Formaldehyde can cause serious health problems, even in small amounts, and in some cases exposure to formaldehyde can increase a person's sensitivity to other irritants or chemicals that were never a problem in the past making the person allergic to almost any chemical substance. For some people, exposure to formaldehyde has permanently impaired their health and well being,'' notes the study.