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Formaldehyde is a very common chemical and among the simplest of chemicals in the universe. It is an organic substance, which means it contains carbon and hydrogen and is often utilized in the processes of life. This chemical, when airborne, is considered a volatile organic compound (VOC), and can be found around the home. The medical community is in agreement that formaldehyde is a dangerous carcinogen that must be avoided, and that levels of this toxin have been rising in homes over the past few decades. Molekule offers a solution to this growing problem, as the technology employed in its air purifiers can remove formaldehyde and other VOCs from indoor spaces.

Is formaldehyde natural or normal?

Though formaldehyde is an organic substance, it can also arise from several non-living sources, including tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust and forest fires. It can even form in the upper atmosphere from methane and other organic substances reacting with sunlight. It is so simple that it often spontaneously occurs in the universe in places where no life is thought to exist. Astrophysicists have observed formaldehyde far out in the spaces between stars where it is assumed to form from carbon monoxide ice reacting with hydrogen.

Ball and stick model of the molecule formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is also very common in the human body. As part of natural metabolism a 150 pound person produces in the neighborhood of 68 grams of formaldehyde per day. If you could collect all that formaldehyde (and dilute it to 37% so it doesn’t start to spontaneously polymerize) it would only take about ten hours to produce enough to fill this bottle:

But just because our bodies produce formaldehyde doesn’t mean it is safe. Our bodies also produce stomach acid and fecal matter, both of which can be quite harmful if they are anywhere other than inside the stomach or intestines, respectively. The same applies to formaldehyde—your body readily detoxifies and incorporates it into tissues and other biochemicals within seconds of its production. However, exposure to external formaldehyde can confuse the metabolic processes, leading to biochemical errors that may result in harmful or even deadly outcomes. If you swallowed the amount of pure formaldehyde that your body produces on a daily basis you would likely die from corrosive damage to your throat and gastrointestinal tract or one of a plethora of metabolic challenges that would lead to coma, respiratory distress, kidney failure, or central nervous system failure.

How does formaldehyde get into the home?

Due to its simplicity and reactivity, formaldehyde is used in many different industrial applications for almost any type of polymerization process. The most common types of plastics, paints, clothing and other textiles (particularly those labeled “permanent press” like drapes, cushions and formal wear), explosives, soft paper products (like tissues and paper towels), car parts, composite wood products, and many other products all start to some degree as formaldehyde.

As a result, many of the products we put on our bodies or bring into our homes are surrounded with an invisible and odorless cloud of formaldehyde left over from the manufacturing process.

Is formaldehyde toxic or not?

This is a complicated question, but simply put: you do not want to be exposed to formaldehyde.

As we noted above, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance and our bodies produce quite a bit of it. Formaldehyde from inside the body, or endogenous formaldehyde, is generally found very close to the cellular machinery that uses it, so it does not cause any problems. But formaldehyde from outside of the body, also known as exogenous formaldehyde, has been implicated in many negative health outcomes.

Short term exposure effects of breathing formaldehyde

Exposure to very low levels of exogenous formaldehyde can cause irritation, and levels as low as 0.1 ppm (parts per million) can make your throat and eyes sore and cause difficulty breathing. This is even lower than levels of formaldehyde that can be detected by smell, which for most people is 0.5 to 1 ppm.

So, people who are particularly sensitive to formaldehyde will not be able to smell it before problems like headaches and sore respiratory tissues arise. Formaldehyde has been shown to be an asthma trigger, so people who experience asthma attacks or who have COPD should be extra careful to monitor their formaldehyde exposure.

Low levels of formaldehyde can also cause problems such as headaches, depression, mood swings, insomnia, irritability, ADD/ ADHD, or motor and memory problems.

Short term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde (over 4 ppm) is intolerable to most people and can lead to severe and immediate respiratory damage and swelling of any tissues that come into contact with the contaminated air. It can also lead to Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome, which is a form of asthma usually caused by a single exposure to an external toxin.

Fortunately, most short term effects of formaldehyde are not permanent.

Long term exposure effects of breathing formaldehyde

Minor problems associated with formaldehyde exposure generally consist of enduring the short term problems mentioned above for a longer amount of time. However, there are two major health problems that can occur with continued exposure to formaldehyde: Sensitization and cancer.

Sensitization to formaldehyde means that even very small amounts in the air can cause swelling of the throat and other respiratory problems. Long term exposure has been associated with causing childhood asthma. In addition, formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and several other medical research bodies, causing cancers in tissues chronically exposed to even low levels of formaldehyde.

Is formaldehyde a problem for me?

If you want to know if formaldehyde is creating a negative impact on your health, you will need to get advice from your doctor about the effects on your body and have a professional test your home or workplace for formaldehyde levels.

Formaldehyde is most likely to cause an issue in people who are sensitive to it. Your doctor can give you a skin prick test to find out your sensitivity (a small amount of formaldehyde is placed on a needle used to prick your skin). You can then observe how much your skin tissue swells, which is directly related to how much your throat and lungs will swell on exposure to airborne formaldehyde.

If you are sensitive or just concerned about chronic effects of formaldehyde, it is a good idea to get the spaces in which you spend a lot of time tested. There are a few handheld monitors on the market that claim to do this, but these lower-priced models can give false readings—truly reliable consumer sensors usually cost thousands of dollars. If you are concerned about formaldehyde levels it is best to use a sampling kit from a reputable company like Home Air Check and send it off to a lab.

How does Molekule remove formaldehyde?

Molekule destroys formaldehyde by converting it into trace components of the atmosphere through the process of oxidation. The chemistry of how this works is quite complex but it has been well-studied and there are a few different ways to describe it.

The most complex but complete way is to understand how this works is to look up into the atmosphere. PECO employs the same chemical pathways to destroy organic compounds that solar energy mediates in the upper atmosphere. Way up near the ozone layer, the sun creates highly reactive molecules known as hydroxyl radicals by imparting energy to water molecules. Then the series of steps (diagrammed below) occurs to convert toxic formaldehyde (CH2O) into safe-to-inhale carbon dioxide (CO2), and catalytically reverts all unstable molecules back into stable states. This all happens about ten miles above our heads.

The carbon atom that starts in formaldehyde and ends in carbon dioxide is marked in red so you can follow the steps, blue arrows are returning to the atmosphere, green arrows are coming from the atmosphere, and orange arrows are moving between reaction steps. Please note many of the side reactions not involving formaldehyde or the neutralization of participating unstable molecules have been omitted for simplicity.

To put it in even simpler terms: Combustion (burning) ultimately transforms organic substances like formaldehyde into CO2 and other byproducts.

Molekule’s PECO technology has been engineered to produce the same hydroxyl radicals as the sun in a sufficiently large volume to create a similar reaction process. Essentially what happens in the Molekule device is the same as what would eventually happen to formaldehyde in the real world—it is converted back into its component substances.

Formaldehyde that comes into our homes from industrially produced products is a dangerous and potentially deadly substance. Testing by Intertek laboratories has shown that Molekule removes formaldehyde from the air that passes through the device, making it a great choice to keep your and your family’s lungs safe from this harmful toxin. To learn more about the testing, read our article, “Third-Party Confirms Molekule Air Purifier Destroys VOCs.” You can also learn more about the science behind Molekule vs. VOCs.

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