Formaldehyde, a substance still commonly used to preserve animals for dissection, is classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The distinctive odor associated with formaldehyde used in classroom dissections is more than just an irritation; it can also have serious health implications. The EPA states that in order for most people to be able to detect the smell of the chemical, the concentration must be at least 0.8 ppm (parts per million). This is troubling, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set 0.5 ppm as the “action level” at which employers must take steps to reduce the employee’s contact with formaldehyde. Additionally, the federal limit on formaldehyde exposure per 8-hour day is a strict maximum of 0.75 ppm. The EPA states that these federal limits, designed for adults, would be set even lower if applied to children.
Dissection exposes children to this unnecessary health hazard, and most classrooms are not designed with ventilation systems equipped to handle high concentrations of a toxic chemical. Moreover, most standard ceiling ventilation systems are not able to adequately remove formaldehyde, in particular, from the air, as the chemical tends to settle at the bottom of classrooms.
Along with being linked with an increased risk for cancer of the throat, lungs, and nasal passages, formaldehyde can trigger allergies and often causes headaches and irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system—even at very low levels.