Signs of Formaldehyde in a Child Care Center- And What to Do About It

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signs of formaldehyde in child care center

No one wants their children to be exposed to harmful substances, especially in a child care facility where they spend a large part of their day. However, the owner and staff at a child care center may not be aware of possible harmful substances that could be present in their rooms – such as elevated levels of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that can be introduced to an indoor space from numerous sources, including cigarette smoke, cleaning products, and certain building materials.

Unfortunately, high levels of formaldehyde in a building cause a variety of adverse health effects. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen or cancer-causing chemical.

How can you tell if your child care facility has high levels of formaldehyde? Here’s what you need to know about the warning signs and ways to reduce exposure.

What is Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde belongs to a group of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOC), which evaporate into the air quickly at room temperature. It’s a colorless and flammable gas that emits a pungent, irritating odor when exposed to air.

Although formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, it’s also a byproduct of human activity. For example, it exists in cigarette smoke, car exhausts, and building materials like paint, particleboard, and plywood.

As a result, many buildings contain at least some level of formaldehyde gas. When this level climbs too high, it can compromise indoor air quality and lead to serious negative health effects.

Why Formaldehyde Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

formaldehyde can be dangerous to your children

When the formaldehyde levels in the air exceed 0.1 ppm (parts per million), some people may experience concerning symptoms, such as:

  • Coughing & wheezing
  • Headaches & fatigue
  • Skin & eye Irritations
  • Nasal irritation or stuffiness
  • Allergies
  • Nausea

Children may be especially vulnerable to the effects of formaldehyde exposure.

For example, when exposed to toxic chemicals, children are at high risk of developing respiratory illnesses – such as asthma. Children are also more at risk of developing severe respiratory conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia because their immune systems are not as robust as a fully grown adult.

As mentioned earlier, exposure to formaldehyde has also been linked to several types of cancer, including leukemia and lung cancer. Therefore, to protect the staff and children at your facility’s health, you need to know how to recognize the signs of formaldehyde.

What Does Formaldehyde Smell Like?

One of the first warning signs that formaldehyde is present in your child care center is the smell. Large concentrations of formaldehyde emit a strong, pungent odor that resembles a combination of vinegar and burnt matches.

However, some people may not always notice this odor, especially if they have been exposed to high levels of formaldehyde for an extended period of time. In such cases, they may instead notice they have developed symptoms like cough or nausea that indicate formaldehyde poisoning – so it’s important to learn how to recognize both the smell and the symptoms.

Furthermore, you’ll need to understand what contributes to high formaldehyde levels and how you can minimize exposure to your care center.

Increased Risk Factors for Formaldehyde

smoking risks indoors child care center

Here are a few factors that can increase a Child Care Center’s exposure to formaldehyde:

Child Care Centers With Smokers

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cigarettes contain more than 7,000 chemicals, and roughly 70% of those are linked to cancer. One of these chemicals is formaldehyde.

Consequently, if a heavy smoker works at a child care center, the building is at a higher risk of formaldehyde exposure – especially if the tobacco products are smoked indoors.

Child Care Centers With New Products & Construction Materials

Formaldehyde is used in the production of adhesives, solvents, and bonding agents. Therefore, child care facilities with new construction or products may be more susceptible to exposure.

Certain products & construction materials emit higher concentrations of formaldehyde than others, such as:

  • Plywood, particleboard, & fiberboard
  • Pressed wood products (for example – cabinets, furniture, and moldings)
  • Carpet & padding
  • Paints & finishes

When these materials and products are first manufactured, they emit a high formaldehyde concentration into the air. Thus, installing these newly manufactured products in a care center can increase formaldehyde to concerning levels.

Consumer Products

Some consumer products that may be brought into a child care facility may also contain formaldehyde. For instance, some personal care products brought in by the staff, such as hairspray, cosmetic glue, and nail polish, may emit formaldehyde for a short period of time after they are used.

Other consumer products that contain formaldehyde include:

  • Disinfectants & detergents
  • Glues & caulks
  • Pesticides
  • Certain air fresheners
  • Furniture polishes

Ways to Lower Formaldehyde Levels in a Child Care Center

If you have a high concentration of formaldehyde in your child care center, there are a few things you can do to lower the level of exposure, including:

1) Open Windows to Let in Fresh Air

open school windows let in fresh air

One way to reduce the concentration of formaldehyde is to circulate fresh air throughout your care center, particularly in areas where formaldehyde levels are the highest. This will help dissipate the contaminants.

When you keep your windows open, formaldehyde can be dispersed outside where it can be diluted – rather than linger inside of the building.

2) Use Exhaust Fans

If you have an exhaust fan in your child care facility, you can also use this to help reduce formaldehyde levels. As air passes through the exhaust fan, it releases any stray contaminants outdoors – making the inside of your care center a safer environment for your children and staff.

For example, if your care center has a kitchen, running the exhaust fan over the stove when cooking can help dissipate any formaldehyde that forms during the process. This is especially important if you have a gas stove because they emit higher formaldehyde concentrations than electric stoves.

Additionally, using an exhaust fan in the bathroom can reduce mold developing in your child care center from built-up moisture. Mold is a major source of formaldehyde gas and can be difficult to remove once it spreads throughout a building.

3) Install Activated Carbon Filters

activated carbon filter for hvac

Activated carbon filters are effective in removing formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds.  They can be installed in the central HVAC unit, as well as portable air filtration units.  For more aggressive reductions in formaldehyde concentrations, air scrubbers can be rented on a short-term basis.  These are equipped with activated carbon filters and have very high flow rates to remedy a problem area quickly.

4) Keep Temperature & Humidity at Appropriate Levels

Because mold and mildew release formaldehyde, it’s important to control temperature and humidity levels in your child care center. If the temperature is too high, it can cause mold to grow more rapidly, releasing more formaldehyde.

If your child care center is in an area that has high humidity, you may want to run a dehumidifier or air conditioner during warmer months. This will help to reduce the warm moisture in the air that can lead to mold growth.

5) Make Sure Your Care Facility is Smoke-Free

smoke-free child care facility

As mentioned, tobacco smoke contains high concentrations of formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. Reducing or eliminating your exposure to second-hand smoke can minimize the levels of formaldehyde in your care facility.

If anyone on your staff smokes cigarettes, cigars, or other tobacco products – encourage them to smoke away from the property. You may even want to make this a policy to reduce the exposure of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals to children.

6) Choose the Right Kinds of Consumer Products

To protect your facility’s air quality, you may want to reduce formaldehyde exposure by minimizing the use of consumer products that contain or emit formaldehyde – like pesticides, cosmetics, caulks, paints, and glues.

You can do this by switching to alternative versions of these products that don’t contain formaldehyde, such as those made from natural, organic ingredients.

7) Have Your Child Care Center Inspected for Formaldehyde

child care formaldehyde testing

Finally, if you’re concerned about the amount of formaldehyde in your child care center – it’s a good idea to schedule an indoor air quality test with a local environmental consulting firm.

Environmental professionals will test your indoor air quality, locate the sources of the formaldehyde build-up, and offer solutions that can reduce exposure.

Need to Schedule an Indoor Air Quality Test?

Paul Sakson Environmental has been offering environmental consulting services in New Jersey for nearly 25 years. Our team of experts provides clients with thorough inspections and accurate analysis of indoor air quality levels.

We’ll work to find the sources of formaldehyde and offer practical solutions to keep your staff and children safe. If you would like to schedule an indoor air quality test or have questions, contact our team online or call us at (732) 230-7510.


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