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Anatomy laboratory instruction and occupational exposure to formaldehyde
  1. Maria C Mirabelli1,
  2. Stewart M Holt2,
  3. Janet M Cope2
  1. 1Department of Epidemiology and Prevention, Division of Public Health Sciences, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2Department of Physical Therapy Education, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, USA
  1. Correspondence to Maria C Mirabelli, Department of Epidemiology and Prevention, Division of Public Health Sciences, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Medical Center Boulevard, Winston-Salem, NC 27157-1063, USA;mmirabel{at}

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Human donors used in dental, allopathic and osteopathic medical, physical therapy, veterinary and other healthcare-related education programs are preserved using formalin, an aqueous solution of 37% (w/v) formaldehyde (CH2O, CAS no. 50-00-0). During anatomy laboratory sessions, students working with formaldehyde-preserved tissues and instructors demonstrating or observing students as they perform specific dissection or prosection activities are at risk of exposure to formaldehyde and other potentially hazardous components of the preservative solution. While formaldehyde exposure may occur either by inhalation or direct contact with the eyes or skin, the risk of inhalation exposure is particularly high due to the close proximity of embalmed tissue to the breathing zones of the students and instructors.

At room temperature, formaldehyde is a colourless gas; its odour can be detected at concentrations of 0.5–1.0 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm).1 Acute exposures are associated with irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract. Symptoms include tearing of the eyes, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing and wheezing, and they may occur following exposures at concentrations lower than those detectable by the odour of formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure has been associated with mild neurological symptoms, including headaches and dizziness, and genetic damage. The carcinogenicity classification of formaldehyde is based largely on carcinogenicity in the human nasal tract and genotoxicity in human lung and nasal epithelial cells and rodent lung epithelial cells.2 3

Despite the known toxicity of formaldehyde and its potential health effects, anatomists and others have shown little enthusiasm for reducing or replacing the cadaver dissection experience.4 Instead, institutions may increase the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), improve laboratory ventilation and exhaust …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.