Blog >> The Dual-Edged Chemical: Formaldehyde
In the year 1859, Russian chemist Alexander Mikhaylovich Butlerov attempted to synthesize the compound methylene glycol. Instead, he was stupefied by the formation of a compound that was yet known to the field. The chemical was not conclusively identified until 1868 by German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofman who at that time was also the Director of the Royal College of Chemistry in London. Today formaldehyde is known as a naturally occurring compound comprising of elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and is one of the simplest chemical compounds known to mankind. Having applications in various industries such as paint and automotives, formaldehyde has revolutionized production processes and mechanisms by virtue of its chemical and physical properties. However, recent concerns have surfaced regarding formaldehyde as being harmful to human health and regulations have hinted at the curtailing of its use altogether. This post will serve to explicate the brief history of formaldehyde, its rise during the 1800-1900s and eventual decline in the recent decade, primarily due to its detrimental effect on the human body and well-being.
It is necessary to first introduce formaldehyde to our readers. Formaldehyde is an organic compound with the chemical formula CH2O and is a colourless, flammable gaseous chemical at room temperature with a characteristic smell. Also known as methanal, formaldehyde is the simplest member of the aldehyde family and derives its nomenclature from its close relation to formic acid. While existing as a gas under room conditions, formaldehyde forms a variety of chemical products upon condensation which find more practical use including metaformaldehyde and paraformaldehyde.
Before its widespread production and subsequent use in a multitude of industries today, the history of formaldehyde has its roots in Germany, Belgium, France and the United States in the early 1900s by Hoffman's proposed method and was manufactured primarily for use as an embalming agent and medical preservative. It was originally produced in minute quantities - around 5-20kg per plant - until optimization of the production process allowed for commercially viable large-scale production.
The demand and use for formaldehyde has steadily increased over the past century, mainly spurred by development and research that directly or indirectly pose the need for formaldehyde. For instance, the invention of the world's first synthetic polymeric material Bakelite by Belgian chemist Dr Leo Baekeland concomitantly allowed for the production of the first commercial-grade particleboard in 1940s, revolutionizing construction and furniture industries while driving up demand for formaldehyde to previously unprecedented levels.
The recent century has seen the use of formaldehyde as a precursor for many products across industries. Chemicals used in the transmission and electrical systems, door panels, engine block and brakes require the use of formaldehyde as the starting product in their respective synthetic pathways. Formaldehyde resins are present in facial tissues and table napkins to ensure they maintain their strength even when wet. Urea-formaldehydes are utilized as foam insulators in homes situated in countries with colder climates. Formaldehyde also has the unusual property of halting the degradation of living tissue, allowing it to be used in the preservation of both animal and human flesh. It is thus no surprise that one notices a strongly pungent scent when one attends a funeral or enters a morgue - formaldehyde is injected into a dead body before being presented in a funeral.
Despite its usefulness in both industrial and private sectors, formaldehyde has recently come under much criticism with speculations that the chemical may even be boycotted altogether. This is due to the fact that formaldehyde has been discovered to present adverse effects to the human body. When its gaseous form is present in surrounding air at levels exceeding 0.1 parts per million (ppm), sensitive individuals may experience a range of undesirable symptoms such as watery eyes, coughing, nausea and skin irritation. In 2011, the National Toxicology Programme launched by the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. Such reports forecast an eventual decline in the use of formaldehyde for products that require close human contact such as in paints and foam insulators.
Formaldehyde, however, is not a lost cause that is to be abstained from indefinitely. The aldehyde has been detected in space by spectroscopy and has since been observed in many regions of the galaxy. While interstellar formaldehyde has varying physical and chemical properties as that found on Earth, the compound has allowed astro-scientists to determine quantities of carbon in the galactic disc and various properties of neighbouring stars through advanced scientific methodologies.
In essence, despite the fact that formaldehyde has been identified as having the potential to cause harm to general human health, it is important to recognize the contributions this compound has. The history of formaldehyde has shown the providence this chemical has allowed for in various industrial processes. As more research continues underway, concerned parties might be best off funding projects aimed at finding suitable substitutes for this versatile chemical or concede that formaldehyde is a compound that, on a whole, presents too many benefits and that we can only alleviate its risks.
Tradeasia International supplies various grades of formaldehyde from reliable sources. Our products are listed on www.paint-chemicals.com and further inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jonathan Quah.