Formaldehyde is highly toxic to all animals, regardless of method of intake. Ingestion of as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of a solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult human. Water solution of formaldehyde is very corrosive and its ingestion can cause severe injury to the upper gastrointestinal tract.
Occupational exposure to formaldehyde by inhalation is mainly from three types of sources: thermal or chemical decomposition of formaldehyde-based resins, formaldehyde emission from aqueous solutions (for example, embalming fluids), and the production of formaldehyde resulting from the combustion of a variety of organic compounds (for example, exhaust gases). Formaldehyde can be toxic, allergenic, and carcinogenic. Because formaldehyde resins are used in many construction materials it is one of the more common indoor air pollutants. At concentrations above 0.1 ppm in air formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes, resulting in watery eyes. Formaldehyde inhaled at this concentration may cause headaches, a burning sensation in the throat, and difficulty breathing, and can trigger or aggravate asthma symptoms.
A 1988 Canadian study of houses with urea-formaldehyde foam insulation found that formaldehyde levels as low as 0.046 ppm were positively correlated with eye and nasal irritation. Although many studies have failed to show a relationship between formaldehyde and asthma, a recent review of studies has shown a strong association between exposure to formaldehyde and the development of childhood asthma. Chronic exposure at higher levels, starting at around 1.9 ppm, has been shown to result in significant damage to pulmonary function, resulting in reduced maximum mid-expiratory flow and forced vital capacity. There is also research that supports the theory that formaldehyde exposure contributes to reproductive problems in women. A study on Finnish women working in laboratories at least 3 days a week found a significant correlation between spontaneous abortion and formaldehyde exposure, and a study of Chinese women found abnormal menstrual cycles in 70% of the women occupationally exposed to formaldehyde compared to only 17% in the control group. There have been no studies done on the effect of formaldehyde exposure on reproduction in men.
The primary exposure concern is for the workers in the industries producing or using formaldehyde. As far back as 1987, the U.S. EPA classified it as a probable human carcinogen and after more studies the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in 1995, also classified it as a probable human carcinogen. Further information and evaluation of all known data led the IARC to reclassify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen  associated with nasal sinus cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer. Recent studies have also shown a positive correlation between exposure to formaldehyde and the development of leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia. The formaldehyde theory of carcinogenesis was proposed in 1978. In the residential environment, formaldehyde exposure comes from a number of different routes; formaldehyde can off-gas from wood products, such as plywood or particle board, but it is produced by paints, varnishes, floor finishes, and cigarette smoking as well.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows no more than 16 ppb formaldehyde in the air in new buildings constructed for that agency. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study found a new home measured 0.076 ppm when brand new and 0.045 ppm after 30 days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also announced limits on the formaldehyde levels in trailers purchased by that agency. The EPA recommends the use of “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products with phenol instead of urea resin to limit formaldehyde exposure, since pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde resins are often a significant source of formaldehyde in homes.
For most people, irritation from formaldehyde is temporary and reversible, though formaldehyde can cause allergies and is part of the standard patch test series. People with formaldehyde allergy are advised to avoid formaldehyde releasers as well (e.g., Quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea). People who suffer allergic reactions to formaldehyde tend to display lesions on the skin in the areas that have had direct contact with the substance, such as the neck or thighs (often due to formaldehyde released from permanent press finished clothing) or dermatitis on the face (typically from cosmetics). Formaldehyde has been banned in cosmetics in both Sweden and Japan. The eyes are most sensitive to formaldehyde exposure: The lowest level at which many people can begin to smell formaldehyde is about 0.05 ppm and the highest level is 1 ppm. The maximum concentration value at the workplace is 0.3 ppm. In controlled chamber studies, individuals begin to sense eye irritation at about 0.5 ppm; 5 to 20 percent report eye irritation at 0.5 to 1 ppm; and greater certainty for sensory irritation occurred at 1 ppm and above. While some agencies have used a level as low as 0.1 ppm as a threshold for irritation, the expert panel found that a level of 0.3 ppm would protect against nearly all irritation. In fact, the expert panel found that a level of 1.0 ppm would avoid eye irritation—the most sensitive endpoint—in 75–95% of all people exposed.
Formaldehyde levels in building environments are affected by a number of factors. These include the potency of formaldehyde-emitting products present, the ratio of the surface area of emitting materials to volume of space, environmental factors, product age, interactions with other materials, and ventilation condition. Formaldehyde emits from a variety of construction materials, furnishings, and consumer products. The three products that emit the highest concentrations are medium density fiberboard, hardwood plywood, and particle board. Environmental factors such as temperature and relative humidity can elevate levels because formaldehyde has a high vapor pressure. Formaldehyde levels from building materials are the highest when a building first opens because materials would have less time to off-gas. Formaldehyde levels decrease over time as the sources suppress.
Formaldehyde levels in air can be sampled and tested in several ways, including impinger, treated sorbent, and passive monitors. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has measurement methods numbered 2016, 2541, 3500, and 3800.
Studies on the interactions between formaldehyde and proteins at the molecular level have been reported on the effects of the body’s carrier protein, serum albumin. The binding of formaldehyde loosens the skeletal structure of albumin and exposure of aromatic ring amino acids in the internal hydrophobic region. Symptoms may affect personal awareness, making one feel tired or fatigue.
Formaldehyde inhalation has also shown to cause oxidative stress and inflammation in animals. Mice studied over an exposure to a high dose of formaldehyde (3ppm), showed increased levels of NO−
3 levels in plasma. This result suggests that FA inhalation either decreased NO production or increased NO scavenging, which may be an anti-stress mechanism in the body. Formaldehyde inhalation changes the sensitivity of immune system, which influences oxidative stress.
In June 2011, the twelfth edition of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Report on Carcinogens (RoC) changed the listing status of formaldehyde from “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” to “known to be a human carcinogen”. Concurrently, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee was convened and issued an independent review of the draft United States Environmental Protection Agency IRIS assessment of formaldehyde, providing a comprehensive health effects assessment and quantitative estimates of human risks of adverse effects