Formaldehyde Poisoning: Information on Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Formaldehyde Poisoning Overview

Sickness Inhale Formaldehyde Formaldehyde poisoning is classified as a disorder caused by exposure to formaldehyde fumes. The condition is often referred to as formaldehyde toxicity, formaldehyde exposure, formalin toxicity, and formalin intoxication. While formaldehyde gas is colorless, it produces a strong identifiable suffocating smell. The gas is found in many household products and building materials used in the construction of furniture, cabinets, and walls. Although the disorder can be brought on by materials containing formaldehyde, many individuals suffer the disorder by using equipment and tools that have been cleaned with the chemical.

Formaldehyde is a chemical that is used to many household products including particleboard, pressed wood, and smoking materials. The chemical is usually found in newly constructed homes filled with building materials that have not adequately aired out after installation. In addition, the levels of the formaldehyde chemical toxins tend to increase with akrise in humidity and temperature.

Exposure to the gas through inhalation causes extreme irritation to the body’s mucous membranes including the sinuses, throat, nose, and eyes. Even short-term (acute) exposure to formaldehyde fumes in small concentrations measuring 0.04 PPM (parts per million) or lower can cause severe respiratory inflammatory responses and cause a negative effect on the central nervous system (CNS). Alternatively, high concentration exposure to formaldehyde can be fatal. Long-term exposure to the chemical is known to cause cancer, especially in the throat and nose.

Who Is at Risk for Formaldehyde Poisoning?

Any individual who has been directly exposed to formaldehyde or indirectly exposed to the chemical is at risk of formaldehyde poisoning. That said, children and the elderly tend to be significantly more harmed by the poisonous toxins that are easily absorbed through mucous membranes and skin. No predilection to suffering from formaldehyde poisoning other than age has been observed based on ethnicity, race, or gender.

However, there are predisposing factors that are associated with formaldehyde poisoning that include:

  • Frequent work around highly toxic formaldehyde chemicals that are released into the atmosphere during manufacturing or construction processes.


  • Work environments that use formaldehyde-containing resins or formaldehyde chemicals to manufacture artificial soap, explosives, mirrors, and dyes.


  • Health conditions including those who suffer from respiratory issues, like bronchitis and asthma are highly sensitive to formaldehyde


  • Pregnancy is thought to be a predisposing factor to suffering harm from formaldehyde poisoning, especially to the unborn child.

That said, exposure to formaldehyde does not mean the individual will acquire formaldehyde poisoning.

Complications

There are certain complications that are known to develop in individuals who suffer from formaldehyde poisoning. Some of these include:

  • Asthmatic attacks caused by elevated concentrations of formaldehyde

  • Multiorgan failure

  • Blindness

  • Chronic asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis due to repeated exposure

  • Cancer of the sinuses and nasal passageways due to chronic or long-term exposure to the highly toxic chemical

Common Symptoms

Many individuals have no symptoms at all even after being exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde chemicals. Some of the associated signs and symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning involve:

  • Breathing difficulties

  • Sleep interference

  • Fatigue

  • Skin irritation

  • Nausea

  • Headaches

  • Irritation of the eyes, throat, and nose

  • Watery eyes

  • Wheezing

  • Skin rashes

  • Sore throat

  • Nosebleeds

  • Scratchy eyes

  • Excessive coughing

  • Burning and aching stomach and G.I. tract when the chemical is swallowed

  • Abnormally low blood pressure (hypotension) in severe cases

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) in severe cases

  • Ongoing restlessness and irregular breathing occurring in severe cases

  • Unconsciousness

Those who experience any health concern associated with the respiratory system or mucous membranes should seek out professional medical assistance at an urgent care center or emergency room at the local hospital.

Preventing Formaldehyde Poisoning

There are certain steps an individual can take to protect themselves against exposure to chemicals that could lead to formaldehyde poisoning. These include:

  • Avoid smoking, especially indoors because most tobacco smoking products contain formaldehyde.

  • Keep the windows open in any environment with new construction materials or other items built or cleaned with formaldehyde to allow fresh air to enter the room.

  • Take steps to control mold using a dehumidifier or an air conditioner to minimize exposure to the toxic chemical. This includes fixing water leaks and cleaning away dangerous mold using water and detergent.

  • Maintain the lowest comfortable air temperature in any building structure to minimize the release of formaldehyde residing in building materials including drywall, flooring materials, cabinets, and furniture.

  • Remain outdoors as much as possible to ensure you breathe fresh air especially if you are elderly, young or suffer from chronic respiratory diseases including bronchitis and asthma.

Maintaining fresh air in an indoor environment is essential to minimize formaldehyde exposure released through insecticides and cleaning products.

Diagnosing Formaldehyde Poisoning

Diagnosing chemical poisoning is usually performed through a routine physical examination. However, the doctor will likely order numerous tests to rule out other conditions through a differential diagnosis because they share many of the same symptoms as formaldehyde poisoning. Other disorders that are closely related to formaldehyde poisoning include:

  • Heavy Metal Poisoning – Many of the signs and symptoms listed above can also be caused by an overexposure to heavy metals that occur in an industrial setting, from foods, exposure to water pollution, taking certain medicines, and food containers that have an improper coating.

  • Arsenic Poisoning – Workers can be exposed to arsenic poisoning during the manufacturing of pesticides and insecticides. The poison is usually acquired through airborne particulates and causes excessive severe symptoms including confusion, drowsiness, headaches, seizures, delirium, and at times death. Chronic arsenic poisoning usually results in muscle aches, overall weakness, fevers, and chills.

  • Berylliosis – Exposure to beryllium fumes and dust can cause berylliosis metal poisoning that usually affects the lungs and causes excessive coughing that over time can become quite exhausting and violent in nature. Exposure can also produce blood in the sputum (spit) and difficulty in breathing along with the appearance of raised, red skin patches. In addition, a doctor might suspect berylliosis if the patient presents enlarged lymph nodes.

Once formaldehyde poisoning has been accurately diagnosed, the doctor will recommend intermittent positive pressure breathing, inhalers, bronchodilators, and pure oxygen to reverse many of the complications associated with toxic poisoning. The doctor may order antibiotic eye drops to ensure infections are prevented along with flushing the skin and eyes with saline solution and/or water.

Treating the Condition

Diagnosing formaldehyde poisoning is often tricky because no specific drug has proven effective in alleviating the condition. Instead, the doctor will recommend supportive and symptomatic treatments followed by close medical monitoring.

The doctor will usually guide the patient in taking protective measures and following strict controls in the workplace to ensure their exposure to formaldehyde is greatly limited. This means following all safety and workplace guidelines in taking appropriate measures to minimize exposure to the chemical. This might include wearing personal protective gear including eye and face protection along with protective gloves, aprons and other clothing that provide a barrier between the highly toxic chemical and the worker.

Prognosis (Outlook)

Individuals with low-level exposure to inhaling formaldehyde and receiving proper treatment usually recover completely from the chemical poisoning. However, exposure to highly elevated concentrations, especially if the inhalation occurs in confined areas is often fatal. That said, with prompt and appropriate management of many of the complications associated with formaldehyde poisoning, the prognosis is usually good.

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Sources:

https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/drywall/docs/whatyoushouldknowaboutformaldehyde.pdf

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/formaldehyde/default.html

https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/formaldehyde/index.html

http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(12)61433-5/abstract

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