The debate about the health effects of formaldehyde continues. Are there any side effects? What are they? Are they serious? What are the alternatives? Here at Naturensbalm, we have been asking our friends and contacts in the funeral industry worldwide about their own experiences to find out how widespread and significant the problem is.
Several adverse effects are commonly cited so we asked about: watering eyes; throat irritation; loss of smell; headaches and depression.
We surveyed people both directly and via social media. Ours was a small survey, but nonetheless, we got a good range of responses which clearly show how wide the variation of effect is from person to person.
The survey showed that roughly 50% of respondents suffered effects of some kind, mainly loss of smell and headaches; “Definitely loss of smell and headaches,” “My sense of smell has suffered and headaches are definitely a problem,” “[after several years at funeral homes] I found that I was lucky if I could differentiate between [coffee types],” “[when embalming] I did have horrible headaches...I do not get them anymore”.
Throat irritation, sinus infection, and tremors were also mentioned; “I have numerous consistent sinus infections,” “I’ve also noticed that after a lot of exposure I have a slight tremor in my hands”.
Even those who did not experience effects were inclined to emphasize the need for good practice and substantial ventilation when working with formaldehyde; “the key is to take proper precautions,” and “we always use [formaldehyde products] in well-ventilated facilities with power exhaust to the outside,” which confirms that the effects of excessive use can be more significant without substantial extraction.
This variation in effects is well documented – as is the lack of universal experience of side effects – and attention is now turning to the potentially carcinogenic properties of formaldehyde, but whatever the effects on individuals, there is no doubt that long-term, substantial and consistent use of formaldehyde presents health risks at some level to practitioners.
Most embalmers will continue to use formaldehyde as necessary and it is unlikely that alternatives will be suitable in all cases. However, with variations in extraction at different facilities and the attendant difficulties of infrastructure, expense, and so on, those wishing to reduce their use of formaldehyde might wish to consider other methods where appropriate. Using a formaldehyde-free alternative for one or two days per week on suitable cases could be an option that dramatically improves the health of embalmers, without compromising the standard of work that customers rightly expect.