Growing Concern Over Environmental and Occupational Formaldehyde Exposure


Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules regulating formaldehyde emissions for composite wood products. These rules were proposed under Congress' "Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act." See Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (2010). These proposals reflect an ongoing industry trend toward switching to no-added formaldehyde resins in composite wood products and coincide with a greater awareness of the adverse health effects related to formaldehyde exposure. One of the EPA proposals limits how much formaldehyde may be emitted from hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, particleboard and finished goods. The emitted formaldehyde may be left over from the resin or composite wood making process or be released when the resin degrades in the presence of heat and humidity.

Formaldehyde exposure from building materials used in temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing was the subject of litigation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fall 2012, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans approved a $42.6 million class-action settlement with companies that manufactured and built government-issued trailers. See

Formaldehyde is occupationally regulated, as excessive exposure can cause adverse health effects including eye, nose and throat irritation, respiratory symptoms, reproductive harm, and cancer. It was traditionally used as a preservative in medical laboratories, in embalming fluid and as a sterilizer. In addition to building products, such as fiberboard and plywood, formaldehyde can be found or produced by in a wide range of household products including fuel burning appliances, kerosene space heaters, glues, photographic film, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, lipstick and nail polish.

Formaldehyde has recently been a topic of interest in another setting: hair and nail salons. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene published a study examining the formaldehyde exposure that hair dressers and cosmetologists experience in salons. See Stewart, Michelle, "Formaldehyde Exposure During Simulated Use of Hair Straightening Products," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, May 25, 2013. Hair straightening products contain methylene glycol, a hydrated form of formaldehyde in addition to a small amount of nonhydrated (free) formaldehyde. The study measured and compared breathing zone formaldehyde concentrations during each step of the Brazilian hair straightening process and found that when heat was applied to treated hair, formaldehyde emissions exceeded standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

This study follows a 2012 settlement between the California Attorney General's office and manufacturers of Brazilian Blowout hair straightening products that resulted from complaints from stylists and customers that Brazilian Blowout chemicals were causing nose bleeds, burns to the eyes and throat, skin irritation, and asthma attacks. Under the settlement, the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout agreed to pay $600,000 in fees and penalties, and was required to warn consumers and hair stylists that its hair smoothing products contain formaldehyde gas. See Moreover, Brazilian Blowout later settled a $4.5 million class-action lawsuit brought by consumers who contended they were harmed by the product. Under the terms of the settlement, each consumer received a $35 payment per treatment and stylists received a $75 payment for each bottle purchased. See Martin, Andrew, "Maker of a Hair-Straightening Product Settles Lawsuit," New York Times, March 5, 2012,

Given the wide range of products that formaldehyde can be found in, and the increased awareness concerning its adverse health effects, we anticipate a growth in claims related to formaldehyde exposure. For more information concerning formaldehyde exposure, products liability, indoor air quality, or toxic torts in general, please contact David Governo ([email protected]).