Formaldehyde is an organic compound with the formula CH2O. It is the simplest form of aldehyde, hence its systematic name methanal.
A gas at room temperature, formaldehyde is colorless and has a characteristic pungent, irritating odor. It is an important precursor to many other chemical compounds, especially for polymers. In 2005, annual world production of formaldehyde was estimated to be 23 million tonnes (50 billion pounds).Commercial solutions of formaldehyde in water, commonly called formalin, were formerly used as disinfectants and for preservation of biological specimens.
In photography, formaldehyde is used in low concentrations for process C-41 (color negative film) stabilizer in the final wash step, as well as in the process E-6 pre-bleach step, to obviate the need for it in the final wash.
Formaldehyde is used extensively in the woodworking and cabinet-making industries. Urea-formaldehyde is used in the glues that bond particle board together. The particle board is used underneath wood veneer and plastic laminate. Cabinets, bank counters, and veneered and laminated woodwork all use particle board containing urea-formaldehyde under the plastic laminate and wood veneer.
Formaldehyde is a common building block for the synthesis of more complex compounds and materials. In approximate order of decreasing consumption, products generated from formaldehyde include urea formaldehyde resin, melamine resin, phenol formaldehyde resin, polyoxymethylene plastics, 1,4-butanediol, and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate. The textile industry uses formaldehyde-based resins as finishers to make fabrics crease-resistant. Formaldehyde-based materials are key to the manufacture of automobiles, and used to make components for the transmission, electrical system, engine block, door panels, axles and brake shoes. The value of sales of formaldehyde and derivative products was over $145 billion in 2003, about 1.2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States and Canada. Including indirect employment, over 4 million work in the formaldehyde industry across approximately 11,900 plants in the U.S. and Canada.
When reacted with phenol, urea, or melamine, formaldehyde produces, respectively, hard thermoset phenol formaldehyde resin, urea formaldehyde resin, and melamine resin, which are commonly used in permanent adhesives such as those used in plywood or carpeting. It is used as the wet-strength resin added to sanitary paper products such as (listed in increasing concentrations injected into the paper machine headstock chest) facial tissue, table napkins, and roll towels. They are also foamed to make insulation, or cast into moulded products. Production of formaldehyde resins accounts for more than half of formaldehyde consumption.
Formaldehyde is also a precursor to polyfunctional alcohols such as pentaerythritol, which is used to make paints and explosives. Other formaldehyde derivatives include methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, an important component in polyurethane paints and foams, and hexamine, which is used in phenol-formaldehyde resins as well as the explosive RDX. Formaldehyde has been found as a contaminant in several bath products, at levels from 54–610 ppm: it is thought to arise from the breakdown of preservatives in the products, most frequently diazolidinyl urea.
Disinfectant and biocide
An aqueous solution of formaldehyde can be useful as a disinfectant as it kills most bacteria and fungi (including their spores). Formaldehyde solutions are applied topically in medicine to dry the skin, such as in the treatment of warts. Many aquarists use formaldehyde as a treatment for the parasites Ichthyophthirius multifiliis and Cryptocaryon irritans.
Formaldehyde is used to inactivate bacterial products for toxoid vaccines (vaccines that use an inactive bacterial toxin to produce immunity). It is also used to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine during production. Urinary tract infections are also often treated using a derivative of formaldehyde (methenamine), a method often chosen because it prevents overuse of antibiotics and the resultant development of bacterial resistance to them. In an acid environment methenamine is converted in the kidneys to formaldehyde, which then has an antibacterial effect in the urinary tract. This is not safe for long term use due to the carcinogenic effect of formaldehyde. Some topical creams, cosmetics and personal hygiene products also contain derivatives of formaldehyde as the active ingredients that prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.