The chemical and known human carcinogen formaldehyde pops up in many unexpected places, like pressed wood products such as cabinets and flooring, hair straightening or curling treatments, fertilizers, cigarette smoke, and some plastic and paper products. It is also used to kill germs, or as a preservative, which is its main function in the funeral industry. And, it is putting at risk the lives of those who deal with the dead.
A recent study reported that male funeral directors with regular exposure to formaldehyde products – such as the embalming fluid used to preserve bodies after death – were more than three times as likely to die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) than men who were not exposed to formaldehyde at all. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a motor neuron disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die, according to The Mayo Clinic. It can affect the ability to control the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe, and eventually leads to death.
Perhaps not coincidentally, chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory, and equilibrium, as noted on the website for the U.S. government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
The U.S. government classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in 2011, and yet its use persists, thanks largely to the industry lobbyists. Even if formaldehyde were banned, it is so pervasive in society that completely preventing people from encountering it would be nearly impossible. It is in our homes, our schools, our cars, our personal care products. It wafts into the lungs of smokers and non-smokers alike.
Aside from ALS risk or other nervous system consequences, formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant that causes chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and nose and throat irritation, according to the ATSDR. It can also cause cancer, and has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and allergies in kids. Formaldehyde is present in many childhood vaccines, put there to kill unwanted bacteria and viruses that might contaminate the vaccine during production. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most formaldehyde is removed from the vaccine before it is packaged, but that means some of the substance is left behind.
And yet information on how low-level, chronic exposure to formaldehyde may impact our children’s bodies is relatively scarce. Do what little you can to protect your entire family from formaldehyde exposure. Read carefully the labels of personal care products – formaldehyde hides within chemicals like Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. If you’re buying new furniture, avoid pressed wood. Don't smoke, and avoid places where people are. Formaldehyde will get into anybody’s lungs, skin, blood, or body. It does not discriminate – but you can.