Every day we learn that a chemical in our lives is thought to cause cancer or some other illness. After a while, most people’s eyes glaze over and it’s left to the experts to figure out what the real hazard is.
Sometimes, movements form to get rid of the offending material, and either an industry converts away from it or legislation is passed to force the conversion. One very simple molecule, formaldehyde, has stubbornly resisted the pressure on it and remains a large part of some people’s lives to this day. It is, at least, very strange.
Formaldehyde has been classified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a suspected carcinogen. That means that, as far as workers are concerned, it’s a known bad actor that should be avoided. Specifically, it has been linked to an increase in brain cancer and leukemia.
Because it is a simple molecule that is simple to make, it has a lot of industrial and consumer uses. Urea-formaldehyde insulation was once a common way to fill cracks and insulate homes. Even air fresheners were commonly full of the stuff, fighting odors not by eliminating them but by deadening noses to just about any smell — a nasty little trick that was surprisingly effective.
Both of these uses have been largely removed from the consumer since the classification of this chemical as a known cause of cancer. It’s still used in industry, particularly in the production of pressed wood products, although it is being phased out where possible and warning labels have to be attached to these products. There are still 11.3 billion pounds of the stuff made every year in the US.
There is one place where formaldehyde has never been replaced, however, and that is in the preservation of tissue for a short period of time. Specifically, the U.S. funeral industry and biology labs still rely on the stuff heavily (it was banned in Europe in 2005).
In order to get a body to go a few days without rotting, the funeral industry alone uses about 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid every year. That’s enough to fill 8 olympic-sized swimming pools with the stuff. It’s typically 20% formaldehyde or so, a level just high enough to preserve the meat without being a major fire hazard to the funeral homes that have to deal with it in large quantities. The workers that use it are advised to wear respirators and operate in a well-ventilated area, but compliance with these requirements is not well known. The formaldehyde is buried along with the dead, close to the water table that it must eventually seep into.
Because it is a highly reactive molecule, it is unknown how much of the stuff makes it intact into groundwater. Certainly, caskets and gravesites are often well sealed and lined to keep contact with the elements at a minimum.
However, the workers in the industry certainly have to deal with the problems associated with this constantly. Exposure to more than 2 parts per million for a long period of time is supposed to result in additional health screenings.
There have been attempts to make alternatives over the years. A wash with an iodine solution was found to generally work well enough to preserve tissue long enough to make it through a funeral, but the resulting pinkish color it gave the deceased seemed a bit strange. It simply never caught on. Consumers can choose more “green” funerals if they want, and cremation is always an alternative, but formaldehyde remains stubbornly common despite known dangers.
The continued use of this stuff in labs and funeral homes is an interesting example of how we deal with toxic chemicals in our world. Relatively small risks that affect a large number of people are often highlighted based on their net affect to the general population, making an emotional argument aimed at a mass audience.
A material like formaldehyde does not have such broad affect on the world but a very large role to play in the lives of a small number of people. They are easily ignored and marginalized even if the total volume of their use of a material adds up to a lot of toxic chemicals. The process is inherently public and political, which is to be expected. What is disturbing is how the politics appears to be based on any given chemical’s ability to personally affect the consumers of mass media.
I’d like to hear from people who have a lot of contact with formaldehyde or have done so in the past. What precautions did you take to minimize exposure? Do you think you were adequately warned of the dangers and given the tools needed to avoid exposure? Did you find yourself sensitized to it after a period of time, reacting with headaches or other symptoms long after your nose stopped detecting it? Do you know people who may have developed serious diseases like cancer after prolonged exposure?
Thanks in advance.