As the level of exposure increases, those risks range from eye, nose and throat irritation to skin rashes and breathing problems. At high levels of exposure, the chemical is considered a carcinogen, linked to leukemia and some types of nose and throat cancer. A strong-smelling gas, formaldehyde is used in making building materials and plastics and often as a component of disinfectants and preservatives. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it into the air as a vapor that can be inhaled, which is the main way people are exposed to it.
The study, which included data from more than 75,000 people, found that the majority of those exposed were workers in the health-care sector — nurses, caregivers, medical technicians and those working in labs and funeral homes. Other study participants who had been exposed to formaldehyde included workers in textile, chemistry and metal industries; carpenters; and cleaners.
At highest risk were those whose work had exposed them to formaldehyde for 22 years or more, giving them a 21 percent higher risk for cognitive problems than those who had not been exposed. Using a battery of standardized tests, the researchers found that formaldehyde exposure created higher risk for every type of cognitive function that was tested, including memory, attention, reasoning, word recall and other thinking skills.
Though noting that formaldehyde is not used as frequently as it once was, one of the researchers said that “there are still thousands of people whose work exposes them to the chemical, and they may face the risk of cognitive impairment later because of it.”