The long term effects of formaldehyde on the respiratory tract have been investigated in a group of 164 workers exposed daily to the chemical during the production of urea formaldehyde resin, together with 129 workers not exposed to free formaldehyde. Exposure was classified as high (corresponding to an eight hour time weighted exposure of more than 2.0 ppm), medium (0.6 to 2.0 ppm), or low (0.1 to 0.5 ppm). Twenty five per cent of workers had had high exposure at some time and 17% moderate exposure. Both the exposed and unexposed groups had an annual assessment that included lung function. The proportion with self reported respiratory symptoms was similar in the two groups, 12% and 16% reporting breathlessness on hurrying and 26% and 20% wheezing. The initial forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was within 0.5 l (approximately one standard deviation (SD)) of the predicted value (by age and height) in 65% of the exposed and 59% of unexposed workers and more than 0.5 l below the predicted value in 9% of exposed and 11% of unexposed workers. The mean decline in FEV1 was 42 ml a year (SD 45) in the exposed group and 41 ml a year in the unexposed group (SD 40 ml a year). The rate of decline showed the expected association with smoking in the unexposed group, but in the exposed group the mean rate of decline in the never smokers was similar to that in current smokers. There were, however, relatively few never smokers and considerable variation in the rates of decline. In the exposed group no association was found between the rate of decline and indices of exposure to formaldehyde. Thus there is no evidence from this study of an excess of respiratory symptoms or decline in lung function in the workers exposed to formaldehyde. The similar rate of decline of FEV1 however in never smokers and smokers of the exposed group is consistent with findings of other studies for workers exposed to formaldehyde and to toluene di-isocyanate.
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