News Flash: Second Hand Smoke and Formaldehyde Still Dangerous

Formaldehyde Safety Tips & Health Hazards from the SDS

A series of articles and reports on two subjects caught my attention this month, the hazards of tobacco smoke and the dangers of formaldehyde. Almost as interesting to me as the information contained in the reports is the notion that as another decade winds down, we are still grappling to understand health issues related to the most well known and ubiquitous chemicals in our society.

Second- Hand Smoke

It looks like smoking is cool again, at least as a test subject. Two reports out this month expand our understanding of the dangers of smoking and second hand smoke. The first one, a report on exposure to tobacco smoke from the U.S. Surgeon General, states that any exposure to tobacco smoke causes immediate damage.

Findings from the Surgeon General’s report include:

  • The chemicals in tobacco smoke reach your lungs quickly every time you inhale. Your blood then carries the toxicants to every organ in your body.
  • The chemicals and toxicants in tobacco smoke damage DNA, which can lead to cancer. Nearly one-third of all cancer deaths every year are directly linked to smoking. Smoking causes about 85% of lung cancers in the U.S.
  • The design and contents of tobacco products make them more attractive and addictive than ever before. Cigarettes today deliver nicotine more quickly from the lungs to the heart and brain.
  • While nicotine is the key chemical compound that causes and sustains the powerful addicting effects of cigarettes, other ingredients and design features make them even more attractive and more addictive.
  • Adolescents’ bodies are more sensitive to nicotine, and adolescents are more easily addicted than adults. This helps explain why about 1,000 teenagers become daily smokers every day.

A second report entitled Tobacco-Smoke Exposure in Children Who Live in Multi-unit Housing on the hazards of second hand smoke finds that children who live in homes in which no one smokes have a 45% increase in cotinine levels (cotinine is an alkaloid found in tobacco and a significant marker for determining exposure to tobacco smoke) if they live in apartments compared to detached homes.

The report, based upon data from a survey of 5000 children between 2001-2006, suggests that exposure could result from “seepage through walls or shared ventilation systems,” and that “smoking bans in multiunit housing may reduce children’s exposure.”

In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that “Most children in the US continue to be exposed to tobacco smoke, even with the growing knowledge of its damaging effects at low levels of exposure.”


Another subject grabbing headlines these days is the use and dangers of formaldehyde.  For many, formaldehyde is best known as the preservative used to keep frogs in “good condition” before dissection in high school science classes; nevertheless, it is a common chemical with many industrial uses and is found in a range of products from wrinkle free clothing to hair products.

According to a National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet, “Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical,” used in pressed-wood products, glues and adhesives, permanent-press fabrics, paper product coatings, certain insulation materials and as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant.

Formaldehyde’s popular comeback as a news item can be traced to a series of stories starting in September questioning its use in a popular hair treatment, the Brazilian Blowout. A November 29 story in the L.A. Times on Brazilian Blowouts provides a nice overview of the resulting furor.

More recently, this week’s New York Times examines the dangers of formaldehyde fumes from wrinkle-free clothing. The article is most concerned with the dangers posed to “people who work with the chemical in factories,” and draws upon a report by the Government Accountability Office to Congressional Committees entitled Formaldehyde in Textiles.

In related news, on July 7 2010, President Obama signed into law a bill that amended the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and established a “formaldehyde emission standards for hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard sold, supplied, offered for sale, or manufactured in the United States.”

One goal of the new law according to Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) is to “even the playing field between domestic wood products and foreign imports.”

Everything Old is New Again

In the coming years, thanks to advances in technology and a growing interest in and understanding of the effects of hazardous chemicals, we should probably expect more  stories uncovering new and alarming information about the most common and ubiquitous chemicals present in our environment.

Of course, companies and individuals need not wait for the reports and articles to be published to begin looking at their environment and finding ways to make healthier choices.