(c) 2010-2024 Jon L Gelman, All Rights Reserved.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Analysis of US EPA's Draft Risk Evaluation for Formaldehyde and Worker Health

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) draft risk evaluation of formaldehyde, released on March 15, 2024, raises significant concerns for worker health and worker compensation risk exposure.

Key Findings of the Draft Evaluation:

  • Unreasonable Risk: The EPA identifies formaldehyde as posing an unreasonable risk to human health from certain industrial and commercial uses.
  • Exposure Routes: Inhalation and dermal contact are the primary exposure routes for workers.
  • Health Effects: The evaluation highlights acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) health effects, including respiratory irritation, asthma, allergies, and potentially cancer.
  • High-Risk Groups: Workers in industries that use formaldehyde are identified as the population most at risk for inhalation effects.

Potential Impacts on Worker Health and Compensation:

  • Increased Awareness: The EPA's findings will likely raise awareness of formaldehyde risks among workers and employers.
  • Potential for Increased Medical Claims: Workers exposed to formaldehyde may be more likely to file worker compensation claims for respiratory problems, skin conditions, and potentially some cancers.
  • Focus on Preventive Measures: Employers in high-risk industries may face pressure to implement stricter safety measures to minimize worker exposure to formaldehyde. This could include improved ventilation, using personal protective equipment (PPE), and substituting safer alternatives where possible.
  • Regulatory Changes: If the EPA finalizes its findings and deems formaldehyde an unreasonable risk, it could lead to stricter regulations on its use. This could further impact worker exposure and safety protocols.

Uncertainties and Next Steps:

  • The draft evaluation is subject to public comment and peer review. The final EPA decision may differ.
  • The evaluation focuses on specific uses of formaldehyde. Further research may be needed to understand risks across all industries.

Resources for Workers and Employers:

High-Risk Industries:

The draft evaluation by the EPA identifies several industries where workers have a high risk of formaldehyde exposure. Here's a breakdown of some key sectors:

  • Construction: Workers who handle building materials like plywood, particleboard, and some insulation products containing formaldehyde resins are at risk.
  • Wood Products: Workers in furniture manufacturing, cabinetry, and woodworking shops can be exposed to formaldehyde from adhesives and finishes.
  • Funeral Homes and Laboratories: Embalmers and mortuary workers are exposed to formaldehyde used in embalming fluids. Similarly, laboratory technicians working with preserved specimens may encounter formaldehyde.
  • Textile Industry: Workers involved in dyeing, finishing, and wrinkle-resistant treatments for fabrics may be exposed to formaldehyde resins.
  • Chemical Manufacturing: Workers involved in the production of formaldehyde itself, as well as those working with resins, plastics, and foam insulation containing formaldehyde, are at high risk.
  • Other Industries: Formaldehyde exposure can also occur in industries like nail salons, abrasives manufacturing, and pulp and paper production.

It's important to note that this is not an exhaustive list.  Formaldehyde is a versatile chemical and can be present in unexpected places. Workers should be aware of the materials they handle and consult with safety data sheets (SDS) to understand potential risks.

Health Risks

For a more comprehensive understanding of industries with formaldehyde exposure, you can refer to resources from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) []  or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) [].

Formaldehyde exposure can pose various health risks to humans, ranging from mild irritation to potentially serious health problems. The severity of the effects depends on several factors, including:

  • Exposure level: Higher concentrations of formaldehyde in the air or on surfaces lead to a greater risk of health problems.
  • Duration of exposure: Short-term exposure may cause irritation, while long-term exposure can lead to more serious health effects.
  • Individual sensitivity: Some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde than others and may experience symptoms at lower exposure levels.

Here's a breakdown of the potential health risks associated with formaldehyde exposure:

Short-Term (Acute) Effects:

    • Respiratory irritation: This is the most common effect and can include symptoms like watery eyes, burning eyes, sore throat, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
    • Skin irritation: Contact with formaldehyde can cause itching, redness, and burning of the skin

Long-Term (Chronic) Effects:

    • Respiratory problems: Repeated exposure to formaldehyde can irritate the airways and worsen existing respiratory conditions like asthma.
    • Skin allergies: Long-term contact with formaldehyde can lead to skin sensitization, causing allergic reactions upon subsequent exposure.
    • Cancer: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified formaldehyde as "carcinogenic to humans" based on sufficient evidence linking it to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. However, it's important to note that the risk of cancer from formaldehyde exposure is likely related to high occupational exposure levels.

Those at greater risk:

Some groups are more susceptible to the effects of formaldehyde, such as:

  • Children: Their developing respiratory systems are more sensitive to irritation.
  • Elderly people may have respiratory issues that can worsen with formaldehyde.
  • People with asthma or other respiratory problems: Formaldehyde exposure can trigger asthma attacks and worsen other respiratory conditions.

If you are concerned about potential formaldehyde exposure, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional. They can assess your individual risk factors and recommend appropriate measures to protect your health.

In conclusion, the EPA's draft risk evaluation is a significant development for worker health and safety. While the final outcome remains to be seen, it highlights the potential dangers of formaldehyde exposure and the need for proactive measures to protect workers.

Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,   Analysis of US EPA's Draft Risk Evaluation for Formaldehyde and Worker Health, (03/25/2024)



*Jon L. Gelman of Wayne, NJ, is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon Gelman  1.973.696.7900 
 has represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational illnesses and diseases.

Blog: Workers' Compensation

LinkedIn: JonGelman

LinkedIn Group: Injured Workers Law & Advocacy Group

Author: "Workers' Compensation Law" West-Thomson-Reuters

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