Last Revised: August 10, 2023

Your work in gross anatomy laboratory will expose you to formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen, irritant, and chemical sensitizer.  This document will inform you of the hazards of formaldehyde exposure and will describe the protective equipment you should wear and the procedures you should follow to limit your personal exposure.

How to Limit Your Exposure to Formaldehyde
  • Limit physical contact with embalmed animals and released liquids.  Wear gloves, provided lab coat, safety glasses, and shoe covers or boots to prevent contamination of skin and clothing. Disposable lab coats are discarded every week or earlier if soiled. Store your boots in the designated area.
  • Avoid contamination of personal items. Store bags, backpacks, and purses outside the laboratory. Use book stands to hold the dissection guide. Do not bring food or drink into the lab.
  • The classroom has a ventilation system designed to reduce your inhalation exposure to formaldehyde. To ensure optimal performance of the ventilation system you should not move the dissection table or open windows in the lab suite. The doors to the lab suite should remain closed.
  • Properly cover the animal cadaver after you finish. This will reduce the release of formaldehyde gas or vapor 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.

  • Inhalation Exposure: 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. Formaldehyde is a chemical sensitizer. Sensitizers cause allergic type reactions in some individual after multiple exposures. If an individual becomes sensitized, inhalation exposure at any concentration may cause respiratory reactions such as asthma, bronchitis, wheezing, and chest tightness.
  • Oral Exposure: 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 Exposure:  Formalin is a severe skin irritant and sensitizer. Skin contact can cause white discoloration, a burning sensation, drying and scaling of the skin. Repeated dermal contact may result in sensitization and allergic dermatitis even at low exposure levels. 
  • 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. If liquid contacts eyes, immediately wash eyes for 15 minutes.
  • 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.