Formaldehyde is a chemical widely used in many industrial processes and consumer applications.
Breathing its vapour can irritate nerves in the eyes and nose, which may cause burning, stinging or itching sensations, a sore throat, teary eyes, blocked sinuses, runny nose, and sneezing.
Skin contact with formaldehyde can cause skin rashes and allergic skin reactions.
The levels of exposure that may cause these allergic reactions will vary between individuals, and will depend in part on their allergy history.
A NICNAS priority existing chemicals assessment (its highest level of analysis) of formaldehyde completed in 2006-07 led to initiatives to improve the safety of work practices and consumer products.
These include a series of safety information sheets for workers in industries using formaldehyde and for the general public.
The series discusses safe use of formaldehyde in work environments such as for embalming, in laboratories, and in the general workplace.
Some 700 copies of the information sheet for embalming were provided to the funeral industry for its members.
Information on formaldehyde in mobile and demountable housing is summarised in a fourth information sheet for the public.
The release of this was particularly timely, as it coincided with concerns being raised about formaldehyde levels in converted shipping containers used as office space and accommodation for government staff in the Northern Territory.
NICNAS advised the Department of Health and Ageing and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs of potential health effects.
A fifth information sheet on formaldehyde in clothing and other textiles was prepared following media reports of possible unacceptable levels of formaldehyde in textiles.
Some blankets were withdrawn from sale in Australia.
NICNAS recommended to the National Drugs and Poisons Schedule Committee that levels of formaldehyde in textiles should be restricted. Following the recommendations of its priority existing chemicals assessment report on formaldehyde, and noting in particular the potential for skin sensitisation, NICNAS submitted that changes should be made to the poisons scheduling of formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde.
It also provided technical advice to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission during measurement of formaldehyde in imported textiles.
Stricter limits for formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde content have been imposed for cosmetics and oral hygiene preparations. Certain uses are also now prohibited.