Published: April 2011

Formaldehyde production and use

Formaldehyde, a derivative of natural gas, is one of the most common industrial chemicals worldwide, with global production estimated at more than 31 million tons annually and a U.S. market of 4.4 million tons.

Discovered by European chemists in the mid-19th century, formaldehyde was first used commercially in leather tanning and dye production. Because of its disinfectant properties, morticians quickly adopted it as embalming fluid. Cheap and easy to make, the chemical was soon adapted for many other applications.

In the 1920s and 1930s, inventors filed numerous patents for formaldehyde-based textile coatings to make clothing crease-resistant. Non-iron shirts coated in formaldehyde and urea formaldehyde were sold on a commercial scale by the 40s (Walker 1944). In the 1960s, as formaldehyde’s health dangers were recognized, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, eager to make cotton competitive with synthetic fibers, developed wrinkle-resistant coatings that locked in the formaldehyde molecules so that the wearer breathed fewer fumes.

Today, formaldehyde is used in a vast array of industrial and consumer products. According to ICIS, an international chemical market research firm, nearly two-thirds of the formaldehyde market is for resins to make construction materials such as plywood, particleboard, fiberboard, laminate flooring and insulation, and for vehicles coatings and brake linings. Other major uses, according to ICIS, include plastics for electronic, automotive and consumer goods, polyurethane foam, and adhesives and sealants for construction and consumer goods.  The U.S. formaldehyde market has receded by 15 percent since 2006, ICIS reports, citing the construction industry’s decline.

Americans living in cities are exposed to significant amounts of formaldehyde daily.    Formaldehyde is a byproduct of gasoline combustion in vehicle exhausts. Adhesives in pressed-wood products release formaldehyde vapors.  Indoor air levels of formaldehyde often are ten times higher than outdoor city air and are highest in new, inexpensive housing. The infamous trailers in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency sheltered people uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were constructed of cheap plywood infused with high concentrations of formaldehyde.

Congress and federal regulators have made some efforts to reduce formaldehyde fumes released by building products.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned urea formaldehyde foam insulation in 1982. In 1984, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set standards for formaldehyde emissions from pressed-wood products.  On July 7, 2010, President Obama signed into law an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act that set limits on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. This provision will go into effect in 2013.