Use of Formic Acid in Humans and in Nature
Formic acid causes a tingly severe burning sensation when it touches our skin. This chemical is found in the venom of most ant species. In plants, you will find it in the sap released by certain species of stinging nettles. In higher concentrations, this acid is hazardous, but in a mild form, you can even use it as a food preservative due to its anti-bacterial quality. It is present in pesticides, insecticides, cosmetics and is also used in other forms for various industrial processes.
Did you know that our bodies also make this chemical? But in smaller quantities, though. It is produced from the methanol that our bodies inhale, ingest or produce. Our bodies make methanol from a chemical called aspartame. Our system converts aspartame into aspartic acid, methanol, and phenylalanine. Eventually the methanol gets transformed into formic acid. Inside our bodies it is in a very dilute form so it is not dangerous.
The name is derived from the Latin word “formica” which translates to ant in English. John Ray, an English naturalist, was the first person to discover the presence of this chemical in ants. He made this discovery in 1671 by distilling the crushed bodies of ants and extracting the acid, which he later named as formic acid. Ants use this substance as a defence against attacks from other creatures. They grab the perpetrator with their jaws (mandibles) and inject the pain-inducing compound into them. The stringer that injects the toxin is located at the end of their abdomens.
Is this a Dangerous Substance?
The toxicity of this substance depends on its concentration. At higher concentrations, it is extremely corrosive, has an intense odour and produces toxic fumes. It can cause blisters and burns on the skin, damage the mucous membranes in the mouth, injure the eyes and affect our respiratory system. You will experience difficulty in breathing if you inhale the fumes released by this chemical. It has been shown that prolonged exposure to this element can lead to kidney and liver damage. It creates the same effects as another widely used industrial agent, Nitric acid.
There are several uses of this compound in our everyday life, such as:
- Due to its anti-bacterial nature, it is often used in the manufacture of cattle feed to prevent it from getting spoiled.
- This ingredient is also added to canned food products as preservatives.
- To create artificial flavour it is also added to certain foods and drinks.
- In cosmetics, this compound is included to create artificial scents.
- It also finds use in the leather tanning industry, in the processing and manufacture of paper and textiles and in converting rubber tree latex into rubber.
In all the above mentioned industries, it is used in a diluted form, making it less dangerous to humans and animals.