A room is covered in plastic sheets and taped off to as a remnant of preparation for its fresh coat of paint.
A room is covered in plastic sheets and taped off to as a remnant of preparation for its fresh coat of paint.
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What you should know about formaldehyde before moving into a new house

Formaldehyde can be a huge air quality issue in a new home. Learn how to protect yourself from this common indoor chemical in your brand-new home.

It’s exciting to move into a new place. A million questions are probably crossing your mind as you prepare for a change of scenery.

One question you may not be considering, though, may be one of the most important:

Is my new home safe enough to live in?

Over 40 million Americans move every year, and nearly half of them move during the Spring and Summer. And with home construction ramping up progressively each year, more and more Americans are moving into millions of homes built from the ground up in the last few years.1

But many don’t realize that their homes, especially the newest and most modernized, may be full of indoor pollutants that can put their health at risk.

The biggest culprit? Formaldehyde.

What’s the problem with formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is one of the most notorious indoor pollutants in new homes or homes with new furnishings.

This organic compound, while found in nature in relatively low amounts, can be dangerous and even carcinogenic at high levels. It’s classified as a Group 1 agent by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), for its demonstrated effects on the human respiratory tract.2 In 2011, formaldehyde was also identified as a human leukemogen in the 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).3

When inhaled, formaldehyde can cause immediate symptoms, such as chest pain, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, nausea, and difficulty breathing. Once formaldehyde enters the lungs, it can be absorbed into your bloodstream, flowing throughout your body and causing systemic damage. This increases your risk of developing chronic respiratory diseases and certain cancers, such as leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma.

Indoor formaldehyde mainly comes from materials used in new furniture and construction, such as adhesives, slabs, coatings, oil paints, and wall fabrics. If it’s not adequately dealt with, formaldehyde levels can remain dangerously high for up to 15 years after years of ventilation and air purification of a new home.

These figures apply to homes that have recently been remodeled, too. According to statistics from Beijing Children’s Hospital in China, around 90% of children hospitalized with leukemia lived in homes that had been upgraded over the past six months.

What should I know about indoor formaldehyde?

Indoor formaldehyde can be incredibly dangerous. But people aren’t going to stop moving into new homes because of it.

So what are the most important things to know, and what do you need to do to keep yourself and your family safe?

Just ask Dr. Yinping Zhang, a professor of Building Science at the Tsing Hua University School of Architecture in Beijing. Dr. Zhang explained some of the common misconceptions about indoor formaldehyde on an episode of “The Doctor Is In,” his show on CCTV, China’s state-sponsored television network:

Is indoor air safe to breathe if the pungent formaldehyde smell disappears?

The answer is no. That’s because the amount of hazardous fumes in the air varies from season to season, and human noses won’t smell any difference, even if levels are three times higher than normal.

Can I prevent formaldehyde build-up if I use eco-friendly building materials?

Not really: construction materials and indoor furnishings that meet certain standards of eco-friendliness can still contain some formaldehyde.

Filling an entire home with materials that contain even trace amounts of formaldehyde can create a cumulative build-up that exceeds safe levels. And the hazards can be even greater when combined with any indoor materials that aren’t regulated for their formaldehyde content.

Can I decorate my home with anything that will reduce formaldehyde?

Many people think that air fresheners, pineapple skins, or tea leaves can help get rid of formaldehyde. But these methods only cover up the smell and make no difference in the levels of formaldehyde.

And plants, freshwater, saltwater, or food-grade vinegar? Forget about it. Research shows that the effects of these materials on formaldehyde are negligible, doing little to alter formaldehyde levels.

How can I prevent indoor formaldehyde?

Dr. Zhang explains that many methods for masking or covering up formaldehyde odors are nothing but snake oil, providing only misguided peace of mind.

He says that the best way (and really the only) way to truly control indoor formaldehyde is to prevent and control indoor pollution from the beginning of the construction process. Here are his recommendations on how to do just that.

1. Choose only green, eco-friendly building materials from the ground up.

Closely monitor the substances used to create the materials that are going into your home or even into a remodel or interior redesign. Make sure the components are sustainable, ethically sourced, and free of chemical fillers that can quickly fill your home with dangerous indoor pollutants.

Also, avoid getting too extravagant with your furnishings – the fewer new pieces of furniture or different coats of paint you use, for example, the better.

2. Work with contractors who have trusted expertise in building science and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).

Secondly, when entering the construction stage, seek for trustworthy decoration contractors and negotiate in advance to generate environmental construction practices, purchase qualified decoration materials of renowned big brands, and oversee construction workers to ensure they carry out their work as supposed to.

Dr. Zhang also suggested that it’s also a good idea for homeowners to invite certified Air Quality Experts to help detect environmental issues and pollutant levels to ensure that indoor air is up to high standards before moving in.

3. Ventilate often.

Dr. Zhang also notes that ventilation is one of the most effective methods for reducing the concentration of almost any indoor pollutant.

4. Get yourself a formaldehyde air purifier.

But what do you do if the outdoor air quality is just as bad, if not worse, than that of your indoor air?

“When the density of PM2.5 outdoors and formaldehyde indoors both exceed healthy levels, I recommend using a suitable air purifier can help eliminate both pollutants will be recommended,” Dr. Zhang says.

And how do you know what air purifier to choose to purify your indoor air of formaldehyde and other indoor pollutants? Dr. Zhang explains:

(Note: we’re about to get technical on you. Skip ahead to “So what purifier should I buy for formaldehyde?” if you prefer to just receive our recommendations.)

“It’s all about CCM, or cumulative amount of purification. CCM value is a key indicator for evaluating the purification capacity of an air purifier. It reflects the cumulative amount of particulate matter and formaldehyde the purifier can eliminate before the filter of a purifier ‘expires.’

“For formaldehyde purifiers,” Dr. Zhang continues, “there are generally two ways that purification works: first, by absorbing formaldehyde; second, by decomposing formaldehyde through a catalysis effect.

“But the reality is that both methods face the issue of purification capacity decreasing over time. Therefore, given the lengthy volatilization period of formaldehyde, selecting a purifier with a high CCM value and long filter service life is critical.”

Let’s look at Chinese air purification standards for a good example. According to China’s new national standards for air purifiers, particulate matter CCM is denoted by P and is divided into four levels. The most advanced is P4, corresponding to 12,000 mg of the total weight of particles purified. F denotes formaldehyde CCM, and F4 is the most advanced, with a standard of 1,500 mg of the total weight of formaldehyde purified.

So what purifier should I buy for formaldehyde?

You don’t need to know the exact science of indoor air quality to know which purifier will work best – just make sure that it’s designed especially for gases, odors, and VOCs like formaldehyde. Here are a couple of our own suggestions:

  • GC™ MultiGas. Designed with a 14,000mg formaldehyde CCM value, 9 times higher than China’s national F4 level. IQAir filters last, on average, for 12 to 24 months (or even longer), while many other formaldehyde purifiers require filter replacement after 6 months or less.
  • GCX™ Series. Ranks top among its competitors with superior CCM capacity, with a CCM value of more than 2.27 million mg (over 189 times more than China’s P4 standard) and a formaldehyde CCM value of over 27,000mg (18 times higher than F4).

The actual service life of a filter depends on numerous factors like indoor pollution levels and the size of your home, so talk to your construction team, contractor, or someone else involved in your move with IAQ expertise so that you select the best air purifier for your specific needs.

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RESOURCES

[1] 2016 characteristics of new housing. (2016).
https://www.census.gov/construction/chars/pdf/c25ann2016.pdf

[2] Formaldehyde. (2012).
http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100F/mono100F-29.pdf

[3] NTP 12th report on carcinogens. (2011).
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21822324

Air Quality Life is brought to you by The IQAir Group, the world’s leading innovator of Indoor Air Quality solutions since 1963. This online publication is designed to educate and inform the public about the latest research and news affecting indoor and outdoor air quality.

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