Formaldehyde danger, volatile gas

What is a volatile organic compound ?

Volatile organic compounds, better known as VOC, include thousands of substances (such as hydrocarbons, solvents, preservatives, alcohols…) and can be biogenic, namely natural or anthropogenic (man-made). Due to their incredible number, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found in almost every activity fields (medical, food industry, reffineries…) and even in houses (paints, varnish, cosmetics…). Because they are volatile, they spread around the emission source and are dangerous. Although some VOCs have low health impact (visual and olfactory discomfort), others are highly toxic and even carcinogenic.

It’s the case for formaldehyde, better known as formol when dissolved in water or formic aldehyde .

This volatile organic compound belongs to the aldehydes family created by the chemical transformation of an alcohol or by the incomplete combustion of fuel or wood. This substance is highly harmful tohumans and can be found in a lot of activity fields (industry, agriculture, photography), in homes (foam pressed sheets used to insulate, concrete, plaster, wood treatment…) and even in tobacco smoke.

Formaldehyde exposure hazards:

For brief exposure:

At ambient temperature, formaldehyde (or methanal) is extremely flammable and can compose explosive mixtures in the air depending on its characteristics. A brief exposure (over 0,1 ppm during 15 minutes) causes a sense lapse particularly a skin irritation like eczema, burning sensations to the eyes and breathing difficulties. Even at low dosage, formaldehyde causes a serious ulceration of the digestive system, even if the cases of ingestion are rare.

For prolonged exposures:

The prolonged exposure to formaldehyde leads to rapid degeneration of the respiratory capcities: nasal lesions, cough, asthma, pulmonary system failure. The International Agency for Reasearch on Cancer (IARC)of the World Health Organisation classified formaldehyde as a category 1 carcinogenic substance, that means it has proven carcinogenic effects on humans. Indeed, the results of the epidemiological surveys conclude to an obvious causal relationship between formaldehyde exposure and naso-pharyndeal cancers. The results however don’t ensure with certainty a link between this volatile organic compound and leukemia.

How to be protected against formaldehyde:

Before being protected against formaldehyde, it has to be detected. The simplest and most economical solution is to use colorimetric reagent tubes, such as the Dräger tubes with gas spot measurement. Reagent tubes (with pump like the Gastec tubes) provide instantaneous measurement of gas concentration, while dosimetric tubes measure average exposure to the gas. A VOC detector will prove useful for more in-depth study and functionality.


The most simple and cost-effective solution is the gas detector tube system. Indeed colorimetric gas detection tubes (with pump such as Gastec reagent tubes) allow an instant measure of the time weighted average exposure to this gas. A voc detector will be useful for precice monitoring and more complete functions.

Once detected, air purifying respiratory protective equipment make it possible to be protected against it. Half-masks or full face gas masks with a type B filter cartridge offer the best protection against this volatile organic compound. A complete gas mask, which protects the eyes, whould be prefered to prevent any eye irritation.