Wednesday, 11 July 2012

How much formaldehyde is safe?

In a discussion about diabetes, the issue of formaldehyde came up. Surprised? Well, formaldehyde is an issue in diabetes because diabetics are likely candidates for using artificial sweeteners such as aspartame which causes the body to produce formaldehyde. Why is this issue of any relevance? Some say it’s not, but my findings show that it likely is important.

The Countess of Mar (Crossbench)

My Lords, the Minister mentioned unexpected consequences. Does he agree that people who are afraid of eating too much sugar because they might get fat will turn to sugar substitutes such as aspartame? Is he aware that aspartame contains 10% methanol, which, uniquely in the human body, is turned into formaldehyde and has its own neurological hazards? Would he recommend having sugar or sweeteners?

Hansard source (Citation: HL Deb, 10 July 2012, c1020)

Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative)

My Lords, ... As for the safety of artificial sweeteners, all food additives, including sweeteners, are thoroughly tested for safety prior to approval and are subject to review by independent expert bodies. The Food Standards Agency considers that all approved sweeteners can be safely consumed at current permitted levels.

Sources of formaldehyde

First of all, formaldehyde is in a lot of stuff and although it doesn’t accumulate in the body, you might be exposed to a lot at any given time. In fact, “about 8 billion pounds of formaldehyde is being made each year.” It may also be the case that if the body is bombarded with an unnatural amount that it will not be able to break it down in the usual manner. In addition, you may very likely develop an allergy to it in a similar manner that many develop an allergy to caffeine as I explained in my article about this. So besides artificial sweeteners, here are some of the sources to consider:

· Air, especially with exhaust from cars without catalytic converters or those using oxygenated gasoline, and formaldehyde is released in the smoke from burning wood, coal, charcoal, cigarettes, incense, candles, natural gas and kerosene.

· Air Fresheners: the four basic ingredients in popular ones are formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellants.

· Medications (e.g., Citalopram) including wart remedies, anhidrotics, medicated creams, orthopaedic casts and root canal preparation disinfectant.

· Food Preservative in some foods such as dried foods, some types of Italian cheeses, and fish.

· Alcoholic beverages.

· Antiseptics.

· Cleansers, disinfectants and polishes, including dish-washing liquids, carpet cleaners and fabric softeners.

· Shoe-care agents.

· Glues and adhesives.

· Plastics.

· Paper: formaldehyde is used to improve the water resistance, grease resistance, shrink resistance and other characteristics of paper.

· Inks.

· Foam insulation in buildings.

· Plywood, MDF and particle board.

· Fire retardants in furniture and furnishings.

· Paints, primers, lacquers and paint-stripping agents.

· Cosmetics: especially hair products with ingredients quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidnyl urea, formalin, and methylene oxide, and oil-based nail polish and hardeners.

· Toiletries: antiperspirants, bubble bath, bath oils, shampoos, creams, mouthwashes and deodorants. In many cases formaldehyde is used as a preservative.

· Fabrics: Permanent press, Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle and anti-shrink finishes; Chlorine-resistant finishes; Stiffening on lightweight nylon knits; Waterproof finishes; Perspiration proof finishes; Moth proof and mildew resistant finishes; Suede and chamois.

· Embalming Fluid!


Formaldehyde is “usually converted to a non-toxic chemical called formate, which is excreted in the urine. Formaldehyde can also be converted to carbon dioxide and breathed out of the body. It can also be broken down so the body can use it to make larger molecules needed in your tissues, or it can attach to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or to protein in your body. Formaldehyde is not stored in fat.” Something’s not right here.  Please read on to see why I think this.

In an article specifically about aspartame and formaldehyde, which I observe must have been written by a B’org drone from Cantox Health Sciences International, the author claims that “The body very rapidly uses formaldehyde and so formaldehyde never builds up in the body. If the body doesn't need it, formaldehyde is converted to formic acid within seconds. The formic acid will be either excreted in the urine or broken down to carbon dioxide and water.”

These references make formaldehyde sound like a non-toxic substance when in fact exposure to formaldehyde can cause injury and even death. Ingestion of as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of a water solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult human and less can cause severe injury to the upper gastrointestinal tract.  It has also been officially listed as carcinogenic!

In addition, there seems to be confusion about formaldehyde’s relationship to bacteria. From Wiki: “Formaldehyde does not accumulate in the environment, because it is broken down within a few hours by sunlight or by bacteria present in soil or water.” However, “an aqueous solution of formaldehyde can be useful as a disinfectant as it kills most bacteria and fungi (including their spores).”


On 10 June 2011, the US National Toxicology Program described formaldehyde as known to be a human carcinogen.

The formaldehyde theory of carcinogenesis was proposed in 1978. In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) followed suite in 1995. As published in 2006, the IARC reclassified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen associated with nasal sinus cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer. There is data out there that shows a positive correlation between exposure to formaldehyde and the development of leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia.

In the EU, as evidence of its toxic nature, formaldehyde is banned from use in certain applications (preservatives for liquid-cooling and processing systems, slimicides, metalworking-fluid preservatives, and antifouling products) under the Biocidal Products Directive and is restricted in other products.


There is information online about the possibility of formaldehyde being allergenic as it's not only a sensitiser but also a potent primary irritant. The point I found important in this is that frequent or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde may cause hypersensitivity and as I think it is an important point, I repeat that the possibility of developing an allergy to formaldehyde is very high with continued exposure because that’s what happens when exposed to drugs. Formaldehyde in large enough doses may be considered a drug in that it alters the normal functioning of the body.

Wiki has similar non-referenced entries on formaldehyde with this input:

“Studies on the interactions between formaldehyde and proteins at the molecular level have been reported on the effects of the body’s carrier protein, serum albumin. The binding of formaldehyde loosens the skeletal structure of albumin and exposure of aromatic ring amino acids in the internal hydrophobic region. Symptoms may affect personal awareness, making one feel tired or fatigue.” In addition, formaldehyde inhalation may change the sensitivity of the immune system, which influences oxidative stress.


So in conclusion, the amount of formaldehyde that is safe depends on the person and past exposure. This information shows that it would be wise for humans to move away from such gross exposure as is presently the case. For a diabetic who is already suffering from a malfunction in the digestive and immune systems, adding aspartame to the diet should ideally be banned by the government, but it’s not even discouraged. Earle Howe’s reference to thorough testing and approval by the FSA is nothing more than governmental posturing when one considers the conflicting facts in this article.

Embalming Fluid

One last comment, formaldehyde is well known for its application in embalming, usually a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. Simply explained, embalming fluid acts to fix (denature) cellular proteins, meaning that they cannot act as a nutrient source for bacteria; embalming fluid also kills the bacteria themselves. Formaldehyde fixes tissue or cells by irreversibly connecting a primary amine group in a protein molecule with a nearby nitrogen in a protein or DNA molecule through a-CH2- linkage called a Schiff base.” This conjures up in my mind thoughts of proteins in living bodies getting stuck in an undesirable link, like in a molecular B’org chain. The problem is certainly deep. My advice is that if you love life, limit your exposure to formaldehyde and use honey instead of artificial sweeteners.

Photo Credit:Various early 20th-century embalming fluids