Although formaldehyde gas had been known for many years to be a powerful irritant that can contaminate the air in a house, it wasn’t until the installation of urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) in houses that state and federal agencies began to focus their attention on it. Exposure to formaldehyde vapor can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; coughing; skin rashes; headaches; dizziness; and nausea. It has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

After the oil embargo of 1973, many homeowners, realizing the need for energy conservation, had insulation or additional insulation installed in the exterior walls of their houses. It is estimated that about 500,000 homes were insulated with UFFI, most of which was done in the 1970s. With UFFI, the quality of formulation and installation determines the amount of formaldehyde released. The amount also increases under hot and humid conditions. By the end of 1980, the CPSC received more than 1,500 complaints of adverse health effects associated with the release of formaldehyde gas from UFFI. In 1982, the CPSC banned the use of UFFI in homes; however, in 1983, the ban was overturned by a U.S. court of appeals. By that time, most of the installation contractors were out of business.

If there is UFFI in the house, don’t reject the house outright. At this time, the UFFI is not considered a major source of formaldehyde air contamination. Formaldehyde levels decline rapidly to below 0.1 parts per million (ppm) within the first year of the installation of UFFI. Although people vary in their susceptibility to formaldehyde, most healthy adults do not experience ill effects from exposure below 0.1 ppm. Also, since the UFFI was installed years ago, any vapors from the insulation would probably be negligible.

Notwithstanding the above, there might still be a high formaldehyde vapor concentration in the air. Formaldehyde is found widely in many household and construction products such as plywood, particle board, chipboard, plastic laminates, cosmetics, cleaners, paper products, drapes, carpets, and even tobacco smoke. Symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde generally resemble those associated with a cold or allergies; however, the symptoms usually cease once exposure is discontinued. If you are concerned about excessive formaldehyde concentration in the house, have the air analyzed by a private qualified testing laboratory.

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