Russian woman 'embalmed alive': What you need to know about formalin

A bucket with a human brain stored in formaldehyde is pictured at a brain bank in the Bronx borough of New York City. Formaldehyde is a toxic substance used in the manufacture of pesticides and paint, among other products.
A bucket with a human brain stored in formaldehyde is pictured at a brain bank in the Bronx borough of New York City. Formaldehyde is a toxic substance used in the manufacture of pesticides and paint, among other products.PHOTO: REUTERS

A 28-year-old Russian woman was supposed to be put on a saline drip during a routine surgery last month. Instead, doctors mistakenly gave her formalin solution, which contains formaldehyde, which is used in embalming.

Ekaterina Feyaeva suffered from convulsions and her organs began to fail, before she died on Thursday, according to Russian news agency Tass.

Here's what you need to know about the potentially lethal substance, formalin.

1. What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas and a person can be exposed to it by breathing it in, or through skin contact.

This can happen when one is outdoors, especially in smog, or through smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products.

Formaldehyde is released into the air by burning wood, kerosene or natural gas, as well as from car or diesel exhaust.

 

E-cigarettes are also said to contain the toxic chemical.

However, the United States' National Cancer Institute has said that the concentrations of formaldehyde in the environment are generally too low to be a serious health concern.

2. What is formalin and where can it be found?

Formalin is a toxic, colourless solution that is derived by dissolving formaldehyde gas in water.

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of pesticides, fertilisers, glue, paper and paint, among other products.

It is also used in the preservation of certain food items to keep them fresh, and is also commonly found in embalming fluid used to preserve dead bodies.

3. What are the effects of formalin exposure?

Formalin and formaldehyde are considered toxic when inhaled, swallowed, or when high concentrations of the chemical comes into contact with the skin.

Breathing its vapour may cause burning, stinging or itching sensations in the eyes and nose, a sore throat, asthma and other symptoms.

Skin contact with formaldehyde can cause skin rashes and allergic skin reactions.

Serious inhalation or ingestion can cause severe pain with inflammation, ulceration and necrosis of the mucous membranes, which line almost every internal organ, according to Bali's BIMC Hospital.

This could result in nausea, vomiting of blood, diarrhoea, blood in the urine, circulatory failure and death.

4. What is considered a lethal dose of formalin?

Ingesting as little as 30ml of solution containing 37 per cent of formaldehyde is enough to kill an adult, according to the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The short-term exposure limit that is still safe for humans is about 2 ppm (parts per million) for 15 minutes.

5. What should I do if I have a reaction to formaldehyde?

If you have inhaled formaldehyde, move away from the contaminated area. Artificial respiration may be needed for someone who has inhaled the gas.

If your skin or hair comes into contact with formaldehyde, remove contaminated clothing and wash the affected area under running water.

In the case of eye contact, flush the affected eye continuously with running water for at least 15 minutes and seek help from a doctor immediately.

And if swallowed, do not induce vomiting.

6. How is formalin used in embalming?

According to the Australian Department of Health, formalin is used during the embalming process as a disinfectant and a preservative.

Embalming fluid often contains a mixture of other chemicals such as methanol and ethanol, as well as water.

According to the New York Times, embalmers inject at least 11.3 litres of the fluid into a cadaver's arterial system and body cavity. This helps to preserve the body for a limited time for wakes and funerals.

7. What are the other potential dangers of formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a highly reactive, flammable gas, which means it can become a fire hazard when exposed to flame or heat.

Similarly, formaldehyde solutions can be flammable when there are high concentrations of formaldehyde or methanol.