5 Fascinating Facts About Formaldehyde in New Homes

A man and a woman carrying furniture into a new house, formaldehyde is the result of off-gassing from construction materials such as foam insulation, wallpaper, and paints, used in construction of new homes.

Among all volatile organic gases, none has the name recognition of Formaldehyde (CH2O). However, this toxic superstar isn’t confined to preserving frogs for high school biology. Formaldehyde and its related compounds help manufacture thousands of products — most notably treated wood and permanent-press fabrics.

Since new and recently remodeled homes tend to be constructed of and/or furnished with plenty of such products (cabinets, tables, chairs, rugs, curtains, flooring, etc.) you should know a bit about this odiferous villain. Here are 5 often underemphasized facts about formaldehyde in new and newly remodeled homes.

1. Formaldehyde Levels Can Be 200x Higher Indoors

In 2004, the California EPA found (as reported by the Minnesota Department of Health) that “levels of formaldehyde in conventional homes average about 20 ppb [0.02 ppm], while levels in manufactured homes the average is about 40 ppb [0.04 ppm].” Meanwhile, the outdoor concentration of CH2O ranges from 0.0002 ppm (lowest value in rural air) to 0.047 ppm (highest value in urban air). In other words, a manufactured home in a rural area can have up to 200 times the formaldehyde level outdoors. Meanwhile, newer urban homes provide no relief from the already dubious outdoor concentration.

Observant readers will note that this study predates the 2018 federal regulations. Do new and newly remodeled homes still have these levels? According to the EPA, yes. Per their formaldehyde landing page (last updated October 2023), “In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels [of formaldehyde] can be greater than 0.3 ppm.” As that is anywhere from 6 to 1,500 times possible outdoor levels, let’s hope they rounded up.

2. Formaldehyde Is Both More and Less Hazardous Than You Might Think

“Oh no!” you might be thinking. “Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and my home is going to give me cancer!” However, CH2O-caused cancers seem to be solely the misfortune of certain industrial workers in high-exposure industries. This isn’t to say that formaldehyde is safe (far from it), but studies suggest that the domestic cancer risk is rather small.

The trouble with formaldehyde is usually far more mundane: headaches, nausea, and eye/throat/lung irritation. While these symptoms are most common when levels reach 0.1 ppm, keep in mind these important caveats from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

  • The level at which CH2O can affect you is below the level at which it can be sensed. “Odor is not an adequate indicator of formaldehyde's presence and may not provide reliable warning of hazardous concentrations. Odor adaptation can occur.”
  • Certain individuals are sensitive to lower levels of CH2O than others. “Previously sensitized persons may develop a skin rash or breathing problems from very small exposures.”
  • “Children exposed to the same levels of formaldehyde as adults may receive larger doses because they have greater lung surface area:body weight ratios and increased minute volumes:weight ratios. In addition, they may be exposed to higher levels than adults in the same location because of their short stature and the higher levels of formaldehyde found nearer to the ground.”

Thus, while high formaldehyde in your new home isn’t necessarily a crisis, it is worth keeping an eye on — especially if you live with asthmatics and/or children.

3. Formaldehyde Has Many Aliases

If you haven’t built or refurbished your home yet, one thing you can do is buy low-formaldehyde materials. But it's not as simple as checking the ingredient list. Like any competent home invader, CH2O is a master of disguise. According to the ATSDR, synonyms for formaldehyde include:

  • Formalin (a mix of water, Formaldehyde, and methanol)
  • Formic Aldehyde
  • Methanal
  • Methyl Aldehyde
  • Methylene Oxide
  • Oxomethane

It gets even more complicated. Per the American Cancer Society, “Sometimes, even when formaldehyde is not an ingredient in a product, substances that release formaldehyde are. These have been found in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions and sunscreens, and cleaning products.” Different compounds that can break down into CH2O over time include everything from quaternium-15 (often used in makeup) to benzylhemiformal (a textile and paper additive which can cause contact dermatitis).

Thus, when selecting materials, you need to look for specific, regulated terms. The CDC’s guide to “Formaldehyde in Your Home” recommends choosing:

  • “Furniture, wood cabinetry, or flooring made without urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues”
  • “Pressed-wood products that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no added formaldehyde (NAF) requirements”
  • “Products labeled ‘No VOC/Low VOC’ (volatile organic compound)”
  • “Insulation that does not have UF foam”

4. Ventilation May Not Help

Most government and standard agencies recommend increasing ventilation in your new home. Yet there are 2 problems with this.

First, increasing ventilation must be done without sacrificing climate control. This is because increases in temperature and humidity also increase the rate at which materials exude CH2O. One summary of previous studies notes that “emissions increased 2-fold and 6-fold at 25 °C and 40 °C, respectively” and “emission rate increased 6–9 times when [relative humidity] increased from 30% to 100%.” (Both of these statistics refer to a material known as urea-formaldehyde (UF)-bonded particleboard.) Thus, you’ll need to increase ventilation via the HVAC system on hot or humid summer days (rather than the windows). This can drain your energy budget.

Second, ventilation may not even work. Per a study from Hanyang University:

“Decreases of the indoor-produced compounds in the new homes did not depend upon the ventilation systems. The results indicate that the indoor-produced compounds in the new homes will be more influenced by the aging decreases of emission source strengths than ventilation systems.”

In other words, CH2O levels in your new home may still be elevated even with all the windows open. This will remain true until your new home becomes an older home. According to the Hanyang study, levels drop off significantly after the first year.

5. Formaldehyde Requires Specialized Air Purification

Since ventilation is of dubious value, it would seem wise to increase air purification. However, not every type of purifier will help. Most off-the-shelf purifiers are HEPA-based, meaning they catch particles. But CH2O is an organic gas. Thus, you need a purifier that either captures or neutralizes gaseous pollutants.

Purifiers with activated carbon (or charcoal) filters can capture formaldehyde. Activated carbon has multiple pores which invite gaseous pollutants to kick off their shoes and stay awhile. Keep in mind, though, that a small carbon filter can become oversaturated quickly. Thus, carbon filters are best combined with another (more active) technology.

ActivePure is that technology. ActivePure molecules bind to the CH2O, breaking it down into water vapor and carbon dioxide. Many of our units are combined with activated carbon for a two-fold approach to VOC gas neutralization.

In summary, formaldehyde isn’t worth panicking over, but it is worth taking action. By judiciously selecting the correct construction materials/furnishings and using the proper air purification technology, you can help reduce your risk of exposure.

Before investing in purification, you’ll probably want to know if your formaldehyde levels are high in the first place. We can help with that too. Explore the benefits of real-time air quality testing on our May blog.

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