Encouraging formaldehyde substitution in several occupational sectors

Formaldehyde has been recognised as a carcinogen at European level and must be substituted by other substances or processes to protect the health of exposed workers. ANSES carried out several expert appraisals to identify less hazardous alternatives in five occupational sectors, examining the enabling factors and barriers to substitution in several industries. This work will support the government in enforcing substitution requirements among employers. It should also help those involved in the prevention of occupational health risks to support substitution efforts.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic substance

Formaldehyde is a chemical used in many industry sectors, mainly as a disinfectant or biocide, as a preservative in the food industry and embalming, and as a feedstock for producing resins used in the manufacture of wood-based panels and in the treatment of leather, paints, adhesives and varnishes, and textiles.

In 2014, formaldehyde was classified as a category 1B carcinogen at European level, which means that steps should be taken to promote its substitution and reduce exposure to the lowest possible level. In France, a Ministerial Order of 13 July 2006 classified work involving formaldehyde exposure as a carcinogenic process and requires employers to identify alternatives.

Promoting the implementation of alternatives

To support the enforcement of substitution requirements among employers, ANSES received a request from its supervisory ministries to identify alternatives to the chemical in five industry sectors:

 To carry out this work, the Agency developed a method for comparing the alternatives to a chemical (PDF). The first step was to identify key technical criteria justifying the use of the chemical, and suggest less toxic alternatives that can replace it for that use.

Engaging all stakeholders to facilitate substitution

For each industry sector, the expert appraisals documented a range of potential alternatives and compared them with formaldehyde, including for technical properties, regulatory requirements, toxicity, exposure conditions, substitution costs and other impacts.

Beyond this review, the results show that eliminating formaldehyde in favour of less hazardous alternatives may be possible in certain industries, such as for cake treatment in the feed industry.

The implementation of a substitution approach is not just about replacing one chemical by another, but may require changing production processes, the materials used and even how work is organised. Employers are strongly advised to discuss these changes with all interested parties, including suppliers, employees and union representatives.

Henri Bastos
Scientific Director for Occupational Health

In some instances, however, it will not be possible to implement some of the alternatives yet. ANSES has recommended various courses of action to limit formaldehyde uses that are not essential from a technical point of view, as a first step. This concerns several uses in fish farming, anatomical and cytological pathology, and embalming.

Lastly, the Agency’s work has highlighted a number of barriers to substitution, such as existing international standards in the medical diagnostics industry, for example.

Substitute and alternative, two distinct concepts

A substitute is a substance, mixture or process to be considered for replacing the substance to be substituted.

An alternative takes into consideration both the substitute itself and the changes to work processes that are needed to implement it.