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Formaldehyde in household products: What do I need to know?

Johnson & Johnson announced last week that it was taking formaldehyde out of all of its products and it was working on getting parabens out next. Why is this news? Learn more about this chemical in our everyday products.

Johnson & Johnson announced last week that it was taking conjugated aldehydes such as formaldehyde out of all of its products as it had promised to do two years ago, and it was working on getting parabens out next.  Why is this news?  Formaldehyde has been used to preserve dead bodies for over a century and is used in many household products in more complex forms as a preservative.

One of the problems with trying to deal with formaldehyde is that it is found in many interchangeable forms and it is intrinsically not very stable. It is called formalin if dissolved in water – the substance used in mortuaries.  Three molecules of formaldehyde join to become metaformaldehyde in many solutions –the preservation agent for many industrial chemicals.  By itself, formaldehyde is a gas that is very unstable and becomes safer compounds within minutes of release into the atmosphere.

Formaldehyde is made in nature all the time as methane gas (generated from the breakdown of organic material in swamps or composts or from the intestinal gas of grazing animals such as cattle) is hit by sunlight in the upper atmosphere.  The formaldehyde reacts chemically with other gases when it drifts down to the lower atmosphere and is one of the most important components of smog.

Unfortunately, formaldehyde is very bad for living organisms such as people and even worse for children since they often get a relatively higher dose because they weigh less than adults.  Wood alcohol (methanol) is a deadly poison.  During Prohibition when people were making their own liquor, they accidently drank methanol rather than ethanol and this became a major poison (more than 10.000 deaths yearly).  But the reason methanol is poisonous is that the body breaks it down to formaldehyde and that is the fatal agent.

In the much smaller doses that were, and still are, found in commercial products, two aspects that are even more worrying are that formaldehyde seems cancerogenic (causes cancer) at least in animal models and may be teratogenic (cause birth defects) in newly pregnant mothers.  Since one cannot obviously scientifically test either of these outcomes in human beings, we have no idea what the dangerous dose is for formaldehyde.  In the case of birth defects, it may be like radiation in which the level of exposure that causes fetal death is lower than the level that may cause birth defects, so birth defects are not actually seen.  (My professor Robert Brent, MD, Phd, just won Philadelphia's highest science award, the John Scott Medal, for figuring this out 50 years ago.)

Besides formaldehyde, there are bioactive chemicals everywhere.  Especially in cleaning products, but also in urethane foam in our furniture and houses, and BPA in our toys and baby bottles and other plastic goods that end up in our children's mouths.  There is mercury in sea food especially in fatty fish and bottom-feeding animals.  Not enough to really harm children if they eat fish once weekly, but maybe enough (it is not clear) if they eat seafood every day.

On top of this, children put everything in their mouths even when it is not food once they're able to start moving around.  Button batteries are especially dangerous, but so are the prescribed pills that grandmom takes so they do not get anemic.  Every parent or child care worker should have the national number of poison control in their phone under POISON: 1-800-222-1222.

The world is a dangerous place, but we should applaud Johnson & Johnson for its effort to make it a little safer.  Now if we only get them to remove all those perfumes that every caregiver likes and makes me so much money in treating all the rashes they cause.

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