Re: Hazards of formaldehyde

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From:Peter Haabestad <>
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With all due respect to Dick's comments, his reference data from OSHA's
Formaldehyde report from December 4, 1987 is outdated.  For anyone who is
interested in the most current information on the hazards of Formaldehyde,
please consult the 1999 CIIT study on the long term effects of Formaldehyde.
In breif, the CIIT data clearly demonstrates that Formaldehyde is 1/100th the
risk to humans as previously believed.  You can find more information about
this comprehensive report by contacting the CIIT and requesting a copy .  OSHA is currently reviewing the 1999 CIIT Formaldehyde report
to consider changing their own Formaldehyde standards to reflect the new


Peter H. Haabestad
PERK Scientific, Inc.

ANATECH wrote:

> For several months there have been recurring threads concerning health and
> safety issues that have troubled us greatly at Anatech Ltd.  The general
> theme has been to make light of toxicity claims, provide anecdotal comments
> about having survived many decades of working in labs, and giving the
> impression that current health and safety regulations are at best a pain
> and probably are the cunning products of misguided governmental agencies.
> There are approximately 1100 HistoNet subscribers (HistoLogic 31(2):37).
> Twenty or so seem to be regular contributors whose comments are given
> considerable credence by many of the readers.  Regretably these regulars
> are creating an impression that can only harm the great strides we have
> made in the last 20 years toward making our labs safe.  I cannot change the
> attitudes of many of these regular contributors, so I address the following
> comments to the rest of you, the 1080 or so reader, whose minds may still
> be open to reason and documented fact.
> The great hazard of formaldehyde is not its proven carcinogenicity.  Anyone
> interested in formaldehyde's effects on humans should read the preamble to
> OSHA's Formaldehyde Standard (Federal Register 52(233):46168-46312;
> December 4, 1987).  According to studies cited therein, formaldehyde has
> been directly implicated in causing tumors in the lungs, naso- and
> oro-pharynx and nasal passages of humans occupationally exposed to levels
> of formaldehyde not unlike conditions existing in histology laboratories a
> few decades ago.  Repeated and prolonged exposure increases the risk.
> True, the risk is small, and with the improved ventilation in most US labs
> (at least), one could justify ignoring the issue altogether.  I personally
> do not care to increase my risk, but the significance is truly minor.
> However, Formaldehyde presents a vastly greater risk to histotechnologists
> by being a potent sensitizer.  Once sensitized, you will probably
> experience worsening symptoms for the rest of your life even if you leave
> the field.  You cannot get away from formaldehyde.  It off-gasses from most
> building products except untreated lumber.  It has been widely used in the
> permanent press treatment for fabrics (although glyoxal is replacing it
> there as it is in histological fixatives).  It comes out of carpeting
> drapes and upholstery.  You will get more colds, suffer with them longer,
> may develop asthma, or experience worsening asthmatic attacks.  OSHA
> reported in 1982 that 79% of the histotechnologists studied showed
> respiratory and dermatological symptoms consistent with
> formaldehyde-induced sensitization, a 2-fold increase over the control
> group.  Exposure levels for those histotechs were 0.2-1.9 ppm, levels that
> were really rather moderate for the time (pre-1987).
> The Formaldehyde Standard was written in great part because of the
> unacceptable conditions in pathology labs.  Industry had long since cleaned
> up its act.  The standard's preamble specifically singles out pathology
> labs as being among the worst for workplace exposure.
> Perhaps many of you do not remember or were not in the field before 1980.
> A few techs were concerned about chemical exposures, but were mostly
> stymied by glib administrators and uncaring co-workers whose attitudes were
> strikingly like those being aired on the HistoNet today.  NSH struggled
> many years to bring these concerns to light, organizing a Health & Safety
> Committee, sponsoring studies of formaldehyde and xylene exposure,
> providing workshops and lectures on all aspects of health and safety, and
> compiling lists of resource materials and personnel.  The real leaders of
> this field have taken the subject very seriously.  Please don't go back
> down that road in reverse; if you do, do it alone.
> I want to set the record straight.  Formaldehyde can be worked with safely.
> No histotech should ever need a respirator.  Simple, properly designed
> ventilation can easily keep vapor levels below the OSHA Action level of 0.5
> ppm averaged over 8 hours.  If you stay below that level (and the STEL of 2
> ppm over 15 minutes), you avoid almost all of the standard's requirements
> and have a safe workplace at least for the inhalation of formaldehyde
> vapors.
> Skin contact with formaldehyde is another issue altogether.  Latex surgical
> gloves offer NO protection (breakthrough time is seconds to a few minutes).
> Very thin nitrile gloves are probably marginally better, but breakthrough
> times are not available.  This form of exposure is the cause of most
> modern-day sensitization reactions to formaldehyde.  Butyl and nitrile
> gloves comparable in thickness to dishwashing gloves will protect you for
> most histological tasks involving formaldehyde (Schope et al., 1987,
> Guidelines for the selection of chemical protective clothing, ACGIH,
> Cincinnati, OH).  Unfortunately, grossing is difficult with these
> protective devices.
> Making your own formalin makes economic sense only until you factor in
> labor, overhead and compliance costs.  Couple that with QC issues and
> suddenly the commercial product from a reputable vendor is a lot more
> attractive.  As Randy Kline has ably pointed out, having it made by a
> company conforming to Good Manufacturing Practices and controlled by the
> FDA goes a long way toward providing you with peace of mind that the
> solution actually does contain 3.7% formaldehyde.  You can buy it
> cheaply,but you will get exactly what you paid always.
> Finally, concerning the assaying of formalin, there are several methods
> available but few will provide the specific concentration with a given
> level of precision and accuracy.  Of the latter, only one is feasible for
> general use (the others require glassware and calibrated standards that you
> don't want to mess with).  Anatech Ltd. and B/R Instruments have an assay
> kit that unambiguously determines the concentration in increments of 2
> percentage units (e.g., 9.0-10.9%).  The test takes a minute or two to
> perform once you become familiar with it.
> Sakura recently came out with test strips, like pH dip sticks, which are
> much easier to use but may be difficult to interpret (the color differences
> between 7.5% and 10% are debatable, the colors are transient, and the
> important color develops in the center of the stick's patch, not the edge,
> making comparison with the picture difficult).
> If safety issues are of concern or interest to you, obtain a copy of our
> Hazmat Maunal (Dapson & Dapson, 1995, Hazardous materials in the
> histopathogy laboratory, 3rd edition, available from Anatech Ltd.).  The
> answer to virtually every health, safety and disposal question that has
> ever appeared on the HistoNet can be found within its 253 pages.
> I could continue with another tiresome page on xylene, but I'll spare you.
> Dick
> 1020 Harts Lake Rd.
> Battle Creek, MI 49015
> 616-964-6450
> 800-262-8324
> E-mail:

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