Toxic formaldehyde is in many things — even clothing


For the past year this column has spent most of its focus on health related to nutrition. Today, however let’s discuss another pressing problem — the subject of formaldehyde in our environment.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical used in building materials and to produce many household products. It is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide and disinfectant, as well as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories.

I remember distinctly the odor of formaldehyde during my dissection classes.

You may remember the incidents of sickness that arose when the federal government provided new trailers to victims of Hurricane Katrina after it slammed into New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast. It was determined that formaldehyde in new building materials was responsible for the sickness.

Formaldehyde can increase a persons sensitivity to other irritants or chemicals that were never a problem in the past, making them allergic to almost anything. For some people, past exposure to formaldehyde has permanently impaired their health and well being for the rest of their lives.

The National Institutes of Health, as reported in an article by The Associated Press, said that people with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers, including those affecting the upper part of the throat behind the nose.

So, what if you are not exposed to building products? Where might you receive exposure to this chemical?

Formaldehyde is also found much closer to your body. It is found in permanent-press fabrics.

Several columns ago we discussed the fact that the skin is a very absorptive organ. Almost any chemical that comes into contact with your skin has the ability to be absorbed. Probably the most obvious things are our clothing.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that exposure in amounts as little as 20 parts per million can indeed contribute to certain rare types of cancer.

“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, told The New York Times in a Dec. 10, 2010 article. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”

How about wrinkle-free products like shirts and dresses, and trousers? Remember that they remain in contact with your skin for hours, and they are treated with formaldehyde. The worst times for absorption being during hot sweaty conditions when body moisture aids the leaching of chemicals out of the fabric and onto the skin.

As reported in Natural, several severe allergic reactions to formaldehyde have been reported. It’s no wonder. Investigations have discovered up to 500 times the safe level of formaldehyde in clothing shipped to brand name clothiers from factories in China and Southeast Asia.

So, when you wear a new piece of clothing and develop a rash from it, you can definitely suspect that it has been treated with formaldehyde.

Symptoms of exposure include vomiting and generalized pain. If the concentration is high enough, the exposed person might slip into a coma and die.

So, what to do?

The only course of action you are left with is to wash a new clothing item before you wear it. I believe that most of the formaldehyde — but not all — will be removed with the first washing.

Walla Wallan Frank Trapani is a retired chiropractic doctor whose background includes 41 years of practice plus doing investigative reporting and fitness programs for broadcast media in Hawaii. For more information, go to


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