- Formaldehyde, a recognized carcinogen and health hazard, is an increasingly prevalent environmental byproduct of industrialized practices.
- It is found in products ranging from pressed-wood products to cosmetics to vaccines.
- While most health agencies agree that infant exposure to formaldehyde in vaccines is safe, study data have only evaluated the inhaled, ingested, or applied compound; studies have not looked at how the body reacts to the injected form.
Warning of the dangers of formaldehyde in the workplace, the government’s own Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says, “health hazards of formaldehyde are primarily due to its toxic effects after inhalation, after direct contact with the skin or eyes by formaldehyde in liquid or vapor form, and after ingestion” adding that “Ingestion of as little as 30 ml of a 37% solution of formaldehyde (formalin) can result in death” and “Diverse damage to other organ systems including the liver, kidney, spleen, pancreas, brain, and central nervous systems can occur from the acute response to ingestion of formaldehyde.”1
Yet, they don’t even mention the effects of exposure by injection, as when formaldehyde is pumped into a newborn baby as part of the HepB vaccine, currently given right after birth, or along with a host of other vaccine ingredients injected over the next few months of the infant’s life (click CDC Vaccine Expedient List to see how frequently formaldehyde shows up as a vaccine ingredient).2
Rationale for Using Formaldehyde in Vaccines
Most people first become familiar with noxious-smelling formalin, the liquid form of formaldehyde, in high school biology labs. It only takes a whiff to know the stuff is poison. But scientific and hospital laboratories are not by any means the only, or even the most common, sources of formaldehyde exposure. For one thing, formaldehyde is a natural byproduct of decomposition, and as such is found in very small amounts in most living organisms, from plants to animals, and including humans.3 In the limited quantities involved in natural exposure, as occurs when formaldehyde is produced, inhaled or ingested in tiny amounts, the chemical is rapidly broken down by specialized enzymes in the body and is either breathed out as CO2 or excreted in urine.4
It is this natural ability of the body to neutralize naturally occurring formaldehyde that is proposed as justification for using formaldehyde as a vaccine ingredient, although few data actually address the pharmacologic differences between ingesting or inhaling the chemical and injecting it, effectively bypassing the body’s usual method of breaking down the toxin. One might assume that, since formaldehyde is routinely used in many vaccines given to babies, even tiny and vulnerable premature infants, studies would have looked at whether it is safe to inject this poison directly into their immature systems. No such studies appear to have been done.
Increased Exposure in the Industrialized World
Residual levels of free formaldehyde (up to 0.02% is permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), used as a stabilizer or an inactivating ingredient, are found in vaccines against anthrax, diphtheria, hepatitis A, influenza, Japanese encephalitis, and tetanus.5 In addition to exposure via vaccines, today’s children (and adults) are exposed to much higher levels of the compound in general than were previously encountered. Formaldehyde is commonly found in many products and processes of industrialized society, where unsafe levels of the toxic gas may be inhaled, as with exposure to first- or second-hand cigarette smoke or to outgassing from preserved wood products or carpeting, applied unknowingly along with cosmetics or hair products.
In any of its many guises (in addition to formalin, formaldehyde also may be listed as formic aldehyde, methanediol, methanal, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol or methylene oxide), not to mention other preservative chemicals known to release the gas as a byproduct, formaldehyde exposure is unavoidable in today’s world. It is encountered in cigarette smoke, gas stoves, and fireplaces; as a preservative in some foods; in household products including dish detergents and fabric softeners; medicines, cosmetics and hair products; glues and other adhesives; paper, plastics and wood products. It is also used in the manufacturing process for a myriad of products including fertilizers, paper, plywood, latex, leather, rubber, photographic film and processing, and sugar.6
Formaldehyde Is a Recognized Carcinogen and Health Threat
As represented by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS),7 a number of watchdog agencies including the American Cancer Society,8 the FDA,9 the National Cancer Institute (NCI),10 and others have classified formaldehyde as a known or probable cancer-causing agent, or carcinogen, and OSHA adds that it is not only a “complete carcinogen” but also “a sensitizing agent that can cause an immune system response upon initial exposure.”11 It is known to be highly irritating to the eyes and respiratory tissues and skin, particularly with repeated exposure.
Because of its classification as a toxin and carcinogen, strict guidelines are in place to define acceptable levels of formaldehyde, particularly for people considered to be at higher risk due to their environment (those living in FEMA emergency housing trailers or RVs,12 for example, or those with new carpeting13), or to their professions (embalmers, hair stylists using certain products and medical lab technicians among others). For workers at risk of exposure to high levels of formaldehyde vapors, OSHA recommends annual training to alert workers to the dangers of exposure above recommended concentrations (formaldehyde levels above 0.1 parts per million, or ppm, can cause respiratory irritation and levels above 0.5 ppm constitute an “action level” warranting “initiation of worker medical surveillance”14).
For the general population, the dangers of formaldehyde exposure have not raised significant concerns among regulatory circles, though there is no shortage of expert advice on minimizing exposure to the poison. The NCI recommends using exterior-grade pressed wood products (such as plywood, paneling, and particle board), ensuring adequate ventilation with use of formaldehyde-emitting products, and minimizing humidity in the home.15
California’s Air Resources Board adds that it is important to avoid cigarette smoke in enclosed spaces as well as fully ventilating spaces while using cosmetics that may include formaldehyde, such as nail polish and polish hardeners, when painting or putting up wallpaper, and during use of any type of gas-heating source (gas, kerosene or propane stoves as well as wood-burning stoves). That resource also recommends washing permanent press clothing to minimize formaldehyde inhalation.16
Little Is Known About Injected Formaldehyde
In the majority of studies, human data on the toxic effects of formaldehyde refer to the compound inhaled as a gas, and it is generally reported to be essentially harmless and easily metabolized, with most governing bodies agreeing that the small amounts inhaled, ingested, or injected in vaccines are safe for even the smallest of infants. A model-based study, “assuming metabolism at the site of injection only,” reported that “formaldehyde is essentially completely removed from the site of injection within 30 minutes,” and used that modeling data to predict that infant systemic levels would reflect less than 1% of the usual environmental exposure level.17
The Food and Drug Administration reports that, “There is no evidence linking cancer to infrequent exposure to tiny amounts of formaldehyde via injection as occurs with vaccines.”16 What they do not seem to consider is that infants are systematically given multiple doses of vaccines at one time, so it is the combined level of formaldehyde exposure that needs to be calculated, not the amount in a single vaccine dose. According to Dr. Sherri J. Tenpenny’s Integrative Medical Center, by the time a child has reached 5 years of age, he or she has been injected with a total of 1,795 micrograms (mcg), or 1.795 milligrams of formaldehyde, as follows18:
- Hepatitis b – 3 doses x 15 mcg each
- DTaP – 5 doses x 100 mcg each
- Polio (IPV) – 5 doses x 200 mcg each
- Influenza – 6 doses x 25 mcg each
- Hepatitis A – 1 dose x 100 mcg each
Valid Questions Remain Unanswered
Little data address the differences in metabolism that may occur when formaldehyde is not inhaled but injected, as occurs with vaccines, or the differing levels that may or may not be tolerated by infants and children compared with adults. Even animal studies generally look only at inhaled or applied formaldehyde. One very old study, however, showed that even highly diluted formalin (formaldehyde in liquid) caused serious health issues in study animals, regardless of method of administration.
Although such a study can’t take the place of evaluation in humans (or more up-to-date laboratory evaluation), the author of that study reported that intraperitoneal (injected into the body cavity) formalin had “a destructive action” on any organ it came in contact with, including the pancreas, liver, peritoneal fat, and fallopian tubes; injection into the lungs caused pneumonia and bronchitis; and injection into muscle or under the skin (both of which are routes commonly used for administration of vaccines) caused significant inflammation. The author concluded that “formalin in whatever way introduced into the body is absorbed, and is then capable of producing lesions” in the affected organs.19
Just because the human body appears capable of processing and eliminating a certain minute level of formaldehyde when it is encountered in the everyday modern environment, does not mean it is safe to repeatedly challenge the immature immune system of an infant or child with such a toxic substance.
1 OSHA. Medical Surveillance—Formaldehyde. Occupational Safety and Health Standards.
2 CDC. Vaccine Excipient & Media Summary. February 2015.
3 National Cancer Institute (NCI). Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. June 10, 2011.
4 U.S. EPA Archive. Public Health Statement: Formaldehyde. TEACH Chemical Summary Sept. 20, 2007.
5 Wang H, Del Grosso AV, May JC. Development of an HPLC Method for the determination of Formaldehyde in Human Vaccines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) Science Forum Aug. 28, 2008.
6 CDC. Public Health Statement: Formaldehyde. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
7 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). New Substances Added to HHS Report on Carcinogens. June 10, 2011.
8 American Cancer Society. What Is Formaldehyde? May 25, 2014.
9 Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure on Human NK Cells in Vitro.
10 National Cancer Institute (NCI). Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. June 10, 2011.
11 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA Fact Sheet: Formaldehyde April 2011.
12 CDC. FEMA-Provided Travel Trailer Study. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Study Reports Feb. 14, 2008.
13 U.S. EPA Archive. Public Health Statement: Formaldehyde. TEACH Chemical Summary Sept. 20, 2007.
14 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA Fact Sheet: Formaldehyde April 2011.
15 National Cancer Institute (NCI). Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. June 10, 2011.
16 Mitkus RJ, Hess MA, Schwartz SL. Pharmacokinetic Modeling as an Approach to Assessing the Safety of Residual Formaldehyde in Infant Vaccines. Vaccine June 7, 2013.
17 California Environmental Protection Agency. Reducing Your Exposure to Formaldehyde. August 2004.
18 Tenpenny S. Formaldehyde in Vaccines. Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center. Jan. 29, 2013.
19 Fischer MH. The Toxic Effects of Formaldehyde and Formalin. Feb. 1, 1905.