Last Revised: October 21, 2021

Your work in the gross anatomy laboratory will expose you to formaldehyde.  This document will inform you of the potential hazards formaldehyde exposure and describe the protective equipment you should wear and the procedures to follow to limit your exposure.

How to Limit Your Exposure to Formaldehyde
  • Limit physical contact with the cadaver and released liquids.  Wear gloves, scrubs, and safety glasses to prevent contamination of skin or clothing.  Wash your hands at end of class.
  • Avoid contamination of personal items.  Store bags, purses in the lockers provided.  Use bookstands to hold dissection guide.  Do not bring food or drink into the lab.
  • The classroom has a ventilation system designed to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde.  To ensure optimal performance of the ventilation system you should not move the dissection table or open windows in the suite.  The doors to the lab suite should remain closed.
  • Suction excess fluids from the chest cavity with the supplied device.  Do not allow formaldehyde containing liquids to puddle on the floor.  Absorb puddles with paper towels.  Dispose of paper towels in a lidded trash container.  Make sure the lid of the drain bucket located under the dissection table is closed.
  • Properly cover the cadaver after you finish.  This will reduce the release of formaldehyde into the classroom.
Health Hazards

Formaldehyde is a nearly colorless gas with a pungent suffocating odor.  It is used as a preservative in a liquid solution that is 37% formaldehyde by weight generally inhibited with 6-12% methyl alcohol.  At this concentration the solution is called formalin.  Some formalin solutions also contain phenol.

Formaldehyde and solutions containing the chemicals are potential human carcinogens, irritants, and chemical sensitizers.

  • Inhalation:  Concentrations as low as 0.1 parts per million (ppm) in air are capable of causing irritation to the mouth, nose, and throat.  Exposure above 25 ppm can cause pulmonary edema (fluid in lungs) which may lead to death. Exposure greater than 100 ppm is immediately dangerous to life and health.  If sensitized, inhalation exposure at any concentration may cause allergic respiratory reactions such as asthma, bronchitis, wheezing, and chest tightness.
  • Oral:  Ingestion can cause severe irritation of the mouth, throat, and stomach, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, coma, and death. An oral dose of 30 to 100 ml formalin can be fatal in humans.
  • Skin:  Formalin is a severe skin irritant and sensitizer. Repeated dermal contact may result in sensitization, resulting in allergic dermatitis at relatively low concentrations.  Contact causes white discoloration, a burning sensation, drying and scaling of the skin.
  • Eyes:  Concentrations of 3 to 5 ppm may result in severe eye irritation. Direct contact with the eyes and skin may also cause severe burns, blurry vision, and loss of vision.  Burns to eyes and skin may have a delayed effect, not appearing for hours after initial contact.  An eyewash is available in the gross anatomy lab.
  • Chronic exposure:  Formaldehyde and its solutions are potential human carcinogens and have been associated with cancers of the lung and nasal passageways.
Exposure Limits

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 0.75 ppm as time-weighted average for an eight-hour shift.  The OSHA short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 2 ppm for a 15 minute period.  Other non-regulatory groups have recommended lower exposure limits for formaldehyde.  The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), which is widely considered to be the state of the art with respect to health-based exposure values, has established a Threshold Limit Value (TLV) of 0.1 ppm as a time-weighted average for an eight-hour shift.  The ACGIH short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 0.3 ppm for a 15 minute period. Penn’s Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety (EHRS) monitors formaldehyde exposure during gross anatomy classes.  Exposure results will be posted in the classroom.