Physics & Chemistry

Industrial uses of formaldehyde


The Toxics Use Reduction Institute is a Massachusetts government research entity that has used the unique usage data from the state pollution and prevention program to create selected chemical fact sheets. The following is from the Turi Formaldehyde Fact sheet.

Profoundly simple, inexpensive and useful, formaldehyde is found in many products, including resins and adhesives, permanent press fabric treatments, tissue preservatives, lawn fertilizers, cosmetics and disinfectants. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer in humans and may cause adverse reproductive outcomes.

Off-gassed from construction products and released by manufacturing facilities and combustion sources, formaldehyde is almost ubiquitous at low levels in both indoor and outdoor air. It is often targeted as a cause of health complaints associated with “sick building syndrome,” such as respiratory irritation and headaches.

In 2005, Massachusetts companies used more than 3.5 million pounds of formaldehyde.

Use Nationally and in Massachusetts

Formaldehyde is a basic building block chemical and it finds its way, either directly or in derivative chemicals, into almost all sectors of the economy and thousands of products. Formaldehyde’s readiness to polymerize makes it ideal for the production of durable resins in wet environments. Most formaldehyde is sold as formalin, an aqueous solution of formaldehyde with some methanol. While available and used in a variety of concentrations, formaldehyde is most commonly used in 37% formalin solutions.

U.S. manufacturers’ consumption is relatively stable at about 10 billion pounds of formaldehyde a year. Because of formaldehyde’s chemical properties which inhibit long range export, U.S. formaldehyde production closely tracks U.S. consumption.

The primary uses of formaldehyde are the manufacture of formaldehyde-based resins and as an intermediary in the manufacture of chemicals, plastics, and controlled-release fertilizers. Wood adhesives used to make plywood, particleboard and other manufactured wood products are the dominant end use of formaldehyde, accounting for 64% of the total worldwide consumption in 2003. Formaldehyde resins can be grouped into two main categories: phenolic resins and amino resins (e.g., urea-formaldehyde and melanine-formaldehyde). Phenol-formaldehyde resins are used in plywood, varnishes, laminates and foam insulation. Amino resins are used in plywood, particle board, and medium density fiberboard (for use in cabinets and furniture).

Formaldehyde is an intermediary chemical in the manufacture of several commercially important chemicals, including 1,4-butanediol (used to make polyurethane and spandex® fibers), methylene diisocyanate (MDI is a common substitute for formaldehyde in wood adhesives) and amino polycarboxylic acids (e.g., EDTA), which are used in cosmetics, pesticides and textile coatings. Other end uses of formaldehyde include embalming agents, gasoline stabilizers, drying agents, preservatives in cosmetics, and biocides in metal machining fluids.

Massachusetts experienced an overall 64% reduction in the use of formaldehyde from 1990 to 2005.

  • In 2005, Massachusetts’ facilities reported using over 3.5 million pounds of formaldehyde under the Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) (see Table 1).
  • Four companies accounted for over 90% of Massachusetts’ publicly reportable formaldehyde use in 2005: Borden & Remington (chemical distributor and manufacturer of aqueous dispersants), The Dodge Company (manufacturer of embalming agents), Raytor Compounds, Inc. (formerly Perstorp Compounds, a manufacturer of urea- and melamine formaldehyde resins for molding dinnerware, medical products, and household fixtures) and Rohm & Haas Electronic Materials (manufacturer of specialty chemicals for use in printed wiring board fabrication and surface finishing).
  • One Massachusetts manufacturer, Solutia, Inc. in Springfield, claims trade secret when reporting formaldehyde use. Therefore, no information about that chemical is included in the publicly-available TURA database or in total quantities in this factsheet. Information regarding Solutia’s releases and off-site transfers is publicly available under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).
  • Other Massachusetts users of formaldehyde include the electronics and paper and fabric coating industries. Electronics manufacturers use formaldehyde in the production of printed wiring boards. Manufacturers of coated fabrics and paper products use formaldehyde-based chemicals in coating, laminating, and treating applications. Formaldehyde is also incidentally produced and released by electricity generation facilities.

Table 1. Massachusetts Formaldehyde Consumption by Industry Sector (1990 – 2005)

Industry Sector

Facility Name


Use (pounds)



Chemicals and Chemical Products

Borden & Remington

Fall River



Monson Companies Inc




The Dodge Company




WR Grace & Company




Coating and Laminating Applications

Fabric Coating

Lewcott Corporation




Paper Coating and Laminating

National Coating Corporation




Printed Circuit Corporation




Paper Mills

Crane & Co Inc Pioneer Mill




Hollingsworth & Vose Company

West Groton



MW Custom Papers LLC - Laurel Mill




MW Custom Papers, LLC - Willow Mill

South Lee



PWA Rollan Decor Inc




Electronic Components and Printed Circuit Boards





Rohm & Haas Electronic Materials LLC




Bull HN Information Systems




Sanmina SCI Corporation




Plastics, Resins and Abrasives

Hercules Inc




Raytor Compounds, Inc. (formerly
Perstorp Compounds, Inc)




Specialty Polymers








Tyrolit North America Inc




Electric and Gas Production/Distribution

Boston Generating Mystic LLC




Hopkinton LNG Facility




Total Formaldehyde Use




Table 1 summarizes the uses of formaldehyde in Massachusetts from 1990 to 2005. Between 1990 and 2005, use of formaldehyde in Massachusetts dropped by almost 5.7 million pounds.

The most significant change occurred between 1992 and 1993, when Raytor Compounds, Inc (then Perstorp Compounds) decreased its formaldehyde use by 3.5 million pounds, after which manufacture of formaldehyde remained fairly constant. Raytor’s overall change from 1990 to 2005 was a decrease of 4.2 million pounds.

Between 1990 and 1991 The Dodge Company experienced a one-time 12.45 million pounds reduction in processing. Dodge then steadily increased its production of formaldehyde by an overall 25% from 1991 to 2005.

Borden & Remington, who uses formaldehyde as a dispersant and also repackages formaldehyde for resale, began operations in 1991. In 1998 B&R experienced a dramatic reduction in the use of formaldehyde, reducing its reportable amounts from slightly over 1 million pounds in 1997 to 607,550 pounds in 1998.


caption Figure 1. Illustrates percent change in formaldehyde


As shown in Figure 1, increases in use of formaldehyde between 1990 and 2005 are related to the fabric coating and electricity generation industry sectors. Lewcott Corporation, the only fabric coater reporting formaldehyde use in Massachusetts, had not used reportable amounts of formaldehyde in 1990. It began reporting in 1993 and showed a 40% increase in use from 1993 to 2005. Electricity generating facilities were not required to report in 1990. The first reports for this industry sector occurred in 1998. There was a 70% increase in formaldehyde manufacture (as a byproduct of combustion) by this sector from 1998 to 2005.

The change from 1990 to 2005 in absolute amount of inputs and outputs in Massachusetts is shown in Figure 2. Inputs include formaldehyde that is manufactured or processed, as well as formaldehyde that is “otherwise used” – ancillary uses that do not become incorporated into the final product. Outputs include formaldehyde that is generated as byproduct (i.e., all non-product material created by a process line prior to release, on-site treatment, or transfer) and the amount that is shipped in or as product.


caption Figure 2. Inputs and Outputs of Fomaldehyde


As shown in Figure 2, both inputs and outputs have been significantly reduced overall in the Commonwealth from 1990 to 2005. Specifically, from 1990 to 2005 the amount of formaldehyde manufactured or processed was reduced by 64%; the amount of formaldehyde that was otherwise used, however, increased almost five-fold. The amount shipped in product over the same time period was reduced by 85% while the amount of byproduct generated went down by less than 30%.

Raytor Compounds and The Dodge Company together shipped almost 6.8 million fewer pounds of formaldehyde in product in 2005 than in 1990. The majority of that reduction coincides with each company’s dramatic decrease in formaldehyde processing in the early 1990s.

Raytor alone reduced its generation of formaldehyde byproduct by 95%, or 66,400 pounds, between 1990 and 2005.

In 1991, its first reportable year of operations, Bordon & Remington reported 1.2 million pounds of formaldehyde shipped in product and 13,800 pounds generated as byproduct. By 2005 B&R had reduced both these numbers significantly – shipping only 100,600 pounds in product, and generating no formaldehyde as byproduct.

A major reporter of formaldehyde byproduct generation in 2005 was the MW Custom Papers company (formerly Mead Paper Corporation). Its two facilities began operations in 1995, at which point they reported an aggregate of 136,000 pounds of byproduct generated. MW Custom Papers reduced its use of formaldehyde and associated generation of byproduct by approximately 17% from 1995 to 2005.

A significant contributor to the amount of byproduct generated in 1990 was PWA Rollan Décor, Inc. who reported 71,500 pounds. This company, however, no longer reported after 1992[1].

Regulatory Context[2]

Formaldehyde is regulated as a human carcinogen, and classified as either a probably, potential or likely human carcinogen by IARC, OSHA, NIOSH and EPS’s National Toxicology Program.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. EPA, and Consumer Product Safety Commission regulate formaldehyde.

  • The OSHA permissible exposures limit (PEL) for an eight-hour workshift for formaldehyde is 0.75 parts per million (ppm) and the short-term exposure limit (STEL) — not to be exceeded during any 15-minute work period—is 2 ppm. Employers must take action to protect employees if exposures reach 0.5 ppm for 8 hours. The NIOSH recommended eight-hour exposure limit (REL) is 0.016 ppm and the STEL is 0.1 ppm.
  • Formaldehyde is identified as a hazardous and toxic chemical in all media by the U.S. EPA.
  • It is classified as both a Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) and a regulated toxic, explosive, or flammable substance under the Clean Air Act.
  • Formaldehyde emitted from combustion turbines is subject to the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards for these devices under the Clean Air Act. This MACT standard limits formaldehyde emissions, depending on the type of device, to between 580 parts per billion (ppb) to 350 ppm.
  • A second MACT standard relating to formaldehyde is associated with the production of amino/phenolic resins. This rule establishes emission limits or control efficiency requirements for several emission points: reactor batch process vents, non-reactor batch process vents, continuous process vents, storage tanks, equipment leaks, and heat exchange systems.
  • Federal drinking water guidelines are for no more than 1,000 grams per liter (g/l) formaldehyde.
  • Formaldehyde is classified as an extremely hazardous substance under CERCLA (Superfund).
  • It is classified as a “registered pesticide” under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
  • According to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, formaldehyde-bearing wastes must be handled as hazardous waste.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission, under authority of the federal Hazardous Substances Act, requires all household products with 1% or more formaldehyde to bear a warning label.

Further Reading


^1. Stanford Research Institute (SRI) International, 1997, Chemical Economics Handbook, “Formaldehyde” (Palo Alto, California: SRI); Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP), 2000, “Mass. TUR Act Chemical Reporting Data” (Boston: MA DEP). Toxics Use Reduction Institute “Five Chemicals Alternatives Assessment Study” 2006 – see webpage:

^2. EDF, 1999; and SRI International, 1997 (see endnotes #1 & #2) Version 2

Editor's Notes




Institute, T., & Civie, P. (2013). Industrial uses of formaldehyde. Retrieved from