The Formaldehyde Threat: Enhancing Safety in University Laboratories


Often times preservation solutions used to keep the integrity of specimens utilized for educational purposes in upper education anatomy laboratory courses are overlooked as a source of exposure to harmful agents, one of which is formaldehyde. Faculty and staff who work with specimens in an educational setting may be exposed to harmful levels of agents, and FACS wants to spread awareness.

The Short and Long-term Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure

Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent gas used in the manufacture of resins, textiles, and plastics. It’s also an ingredient in preservation holding solutions used in medical laboratories and in embalming solution in mortuaries and medical labs. The term “Formaldehyde” is used to describe mixtures of formaldehyde, water, and alcohol. Trade names used also include methanal, methyl aldehyde, and methylene oxide. “Formalin” is the term used to describe a saturated solution composed of formaldehyde and water commonly used in medical and anatomy laboratories. All are carcinogenic, mutagenic, corrosive, and flammable. The Federal OSHA Formaldehyde standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) Formaldehyde standard (Title 8, CCR §5217) and equivalent OSHA-approved state plans protects workers exposed to formaldehyde and apply to all occupational exposures to formaldehyde from formaldehyde gas, its solutions, and materials that release formaldehyde.

Awareness of this issue is especially important for upper education schools and other laboratories where cadavers and other tissue samples are used as part of their work or educational curriculum.

What Can Be Done to Protect Faculty & Staff from the Health Consequences of Formaldehyde Exposure?

FACS environmental health consultants recently received a call from the new environmental health and safety (EHS) officer at a western state university. One of the first things the recently hired EHS officer did was check the records to get acquainted with issues addressed in the past. Surprisingly, an exposure survey had never been performed of the university cadaver anatomy laboratories. FACS was asked to conduct a baseline study.

Here are the steps we took during that process:

  • We conducted exposure monitoring for formaldehyde and other agents found in embalming and tissue preservation solution
  • We evaluated the efficacy of ventilation in the laboratory and compared to ventilation guidelines and requirements
  • We assessed current engineering controls identified as well as other controls put in place
  • We provided recommendations to reduce exposure
  • We documented our work and findings for university records

Outcome of the survey air sample results did not find levels that exceeded the regulatory Cal/OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs); however, results exceeded the Cal/OSHA Action Level (AL) which required training and re-evaluation. Additionally, recommendations were provided for additional assessments to be performed when new cadavers are received by the university. FACS has found through various exposure assessments performed in anatomy laboratories, that formaldehyde off-gassing is strongest the first few months after receipt of cadavers or other specimen samples and can be at levels adequate to severely affect human health. The initial study provided a baseline for future comparison (i.e., introduction of new cadaver) and provided documentation that the university is adhering to regulations set forth by OSHA.

Other recommendations for laboratories that store and use cadavers are to ensure faculty and staff are properly informed and trained of the potential hazard, to make sure ventilation is always adequate when cadavers and specimens are present, to use personal protective equipment when appropriate, and to know what to do in case an incident arises. Schools that cultivate safety awareness and take environmental threats seriously are better positioned to identify and respond quickly to health hazards. That level of concern can also earn the trust and respect of faculty, staff, and students who know their health is valued by the institution.

Help FACS Get This Message to the People Who Can Make a Difference

Don’t wait until an incident occurs, be proactive and share this information with the appropriate contact personnel at your institution. Baseline monitoring is recommended to determine what levels of formaldehyde and other associated chemicals faculty and staff may be exposed to during anatomical courses.

FACS is here and available to provide further information about the dangers of formaldehyde, provide training sessions on campus, or schedule the initial evaluation. Protecting public health is our number one job.

Here’s the FACS contact number: (888) 711-9998.