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Little Sapling Toys Blog

The Truth About Formaldehyde

formaldehyde in the home

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My first experience with formaldehyde was in my 7th grade science class. I remember the day particularly because we were learning about anatomy and biology, both subjects I loved and we were finally doing dissections. Some people would not have enjoyed this at all, but my 12 year old self was so excited to see what a heart and lungs actually looked like and how everything fit together. So I admit, I was and am a little bit of a science nerd. As the day of the dissections arrived I was so excited, and in getting ready for the project each group got a jar with a pickled piglet inside. As we opened the jar the smell was overwhelming. I inhaled and felt so light headed that the room started spinning and I became nauseous. Luckily I didn't faint, and as I got my bearings, Mr. Johnson opened the windows and explained what the terrible smelling liquid was. Formaldehyde, he explained, preserved the piglets until we were ready to dissect them. It was nature's preservative, but in a chemical form.

Formaldehyde may not be the most glamorous or thrilling subject to learn about, but this discussion can be an important topic for your family. Through my own research for this very article, I have become more informed and will make better decisions for my family in the future. And I promise, I'll make this post as concise and informative as possible!

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formaldehyde in wooden toys

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WHY FORMALDEHYDE?

Why do we need to talk about formaldehyde? Mr. Johnson made sure that before we put our hands in the liquid formaldehyde, we had gloves on. He explained that in this form, the formaldehyde was very strong and would be toxic to our skin. All these years later, as a mother, I am always concerned about toxins that my family and I are exposed to. I am especially careful because I have a daughter with Autism, and her body doesn’t metabolize and excrete toxins and heavy metals as well as the average child. Formaldehyde is one of those potentially toxic substances that, in high concentration, I want to avoid and limit my daughter's exposure.  

Here at Little Sapling Toys we are always concerned about creating the best and safest product possible for the development of our children. Based on feedback from our customers, we thought this the perfect opportunity to spend some time on this important topic both as it relates to our products, and general ideas to decrease exposure to toxins for a happier and healthier lifestyle.  

WHAT IS FORMALDEHYDE

What exactly is formaldehyde? Are you ready for some long quotes? I just want to apologize in advance, but I figure the experts can explain things much better than I can. The National Cancer Institute explains what formaldehyde is and common products it is found in:

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is 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; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is produced in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes.

Also, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission explains:
Formaldehyde exposure may potentially cause a variety of symptoms and adverse health effects, such as eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions. Long- term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals. Formaldehyde can affect people differently. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde at a certain level while others may not have any noticeable reaction to the same level.
Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts per million (ppm), in both outdoor and indoor air. The outdoor air in rural areas has lower concentrations while urban areas have higher concentrations (due to sources such as automobile exhaust). Residences or offices that contain products that release formaldehyde into the air can have levels greater than 0.03 ppm.

Now we have a basic understanding of what formaldehyde is and generally where we can find it. But if it is present in so many common materials and naturally occurring how can we limit our exposure?

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kids playing with wooden dollhouse together

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HOW MUCH FORMALDEHYDE?

The toxicity level of formaldehyde is greatly reduced and becomes negligible as the levels of the chemical are greatly reduced. As the previous quote from the National Cancer Institute suggests, formaldehyde is a byproduct of metabolic processes and naturally occurs in living things. Therefore, various levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in wood products, so when companies make claims like ZERO formaldehyde these claims can be misleading if you don’t understand exactly what they are talking about.

Wood products are biological and have naturally occurring levels of formaldehyde in them from the metabolic processes. In soft and hard woods, for example, a study done in Germany found various levels of formaldehyde in wood tested from 9 parts per billion (Oak) to 2 parts per billion (beech).  It is important to note that toxicity levels of formaldehyde (.75 parts per million-ATSDR) is nowhere near these tested numbers. Thus, they conclude that while various woods have different levels of formaldehyde, natural hard and soft woods do not present statistically significant levels of formaldehyde to be toxic. Testing also show that formaldehyde levels significantly and quickly decrease over time as the wood dries out from just cut green wood (highest levels) reducing by more than half (on average) 24 hours later.

When companies that make products advertise ZERO formaldehyde what that means is that in the process of making something like pressed wood products, they only use resins and/or glue that have no added UREA or Formaldehyde. This significantly reduces the concentration of formaldehyde in a product.  As a consumer, you want to look for products that are labeled as 'no' or 'low’ VOC (volatile organic compound) or formaldehyde. When purchasing pressed wood products for your home, look for those that are labeled as compliant with ANSI or California Air Resources Board Air Toxics Control Measure (CARB- ACTM) standards.

Here at Little Sapling Toys have always striven to make products as safe and sustainable as possible. We are keenly aware of dangers posed by high VOC products for little mouths and hands. This is why we have always chosen to make our toys, especially our toys made with pressed hard woods and bamboo, with NO VOC resins and glues. When you purchase our Wooden Rocking Unicorn in Walnut (plywood) you can be assured that we source Walnut plywood with no added formaldehyde used in the resins and glues. However, as was stated above, all natural products have formaldehyde naturally occurring as byproducts from metabolic processes. It is up to you as a parent to choose what to bring into your home and we respect your decision.

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playing in a modern home

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REDUCE YOUR RISK

If you are concerned about the levels of formaldehyde in your home there are tests that you can purchase to test your levels. However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does state that home-based kits have not been tested for the accuracy and reliability.
As discussed above, formaldehyde can induce several symptoms, such as watery eyes, runny nose, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, and headaches. These symptoms may also occur because of the common cold, the flu, or other pollutants that may be present in the indoor air. In general, if your symptoms lessen when you are away from the home or office but re-occur upon your return, they may be caused by indoor air factors including pollutants, such as formaldehyde.  
If that is the case the CPSC suggests getting a test done by a reputable company and lab. In most cases if you do have high levels of formaldehyde, you can mitigate the effects by doing the following (I am summing up their suggestions, for the full information see my sources below).
  1. Increase VENTILATION.  Open up windows and doors to increase and use ventilation systems to circulate fresh air into your space.
  2. SEAL surfaces of formaldehyde emitting products with no or low VOC paint or sealant, ventilate well after.
  3. When renovating, install low or no VOC wood products, such as laminate flooring, MDF, particleboard, and wood paneling, laminate cabinets and counter top without sealant.
  4. Avoid high household temperatures.
  5. Decrease household humidity with a dehumidifier.
You made it and I hope this discussion was helpful! Here’s to you SUPER-parents that can avoid those yucky chemicals in the future. Below are my sources for any of you who want more info.