Formic acid is a chemical that is both naturally occurring and frequently synthesized in laboratories. In nature, it is most commonly found in the bites and stings of insects, namely ants and bees. It is this compound that causes most of the irritation that occurs immediately following an ant bite or a bee sting. Although it can be very dangerous when highly concentrated, formic acid is very frequently used in food products as a preservative or on crops as a pesticide. In its purest form, it has little to no color, and a very strong odor. Despite its natural use as a deterrent for predators, humans have found many practical, everyday uses for this versatile chemical.
Uses of Formic Acid
One of the most common industrial uses of formic acid is in the production of leather. Because it is so acidic, formic acid has proven itself to be perfect for use in this fashion. Although formic acid is most frequently used in leather production, other industries currently use formic acid in the process of dyeing and finishing textiles. It is also commonly used as a coagulant in many rubber manufacturing processes.
In addition to its use in the leather, textile and rubber industries, derivatives of formic acid have recently been developed to help fight slippery road conditions in countries such as Austria and Switzerland. These countries, which fight bitter winters and very dangerous roads, are now using formates, which are the salts that are derived from formic acid. Not only are these formates more effective than traditional salt treatments, they are also more environmentally friendly. When used properly, formates can greatly increase the gripping ability of otherwise slick surfaces, as well as promote the removal of these surfaces with machines and other technologies.
Agriculture accounts for a very high percentage of formic acid use worldwide. Because of its natural antibacterial properties, formic acid has achieved very high use as both an antibacterial preservative and pesticide. In this industry, it is most commonly used as a food additive, and is frequently added to animal feed and silage. When it is used in silage, it serves a dual function. In addition to providing a certain level of antibacterial support, formic acid actually allows silage to begin fermentation at a lower temperature, greatly reducing the overall time that it takes to produce while increasing the nutritional value of the finished product.
Depending on how concentrated it is, formic acid can either be unnoticeable or very dangerous. Through the course of our typical interaction with this chemical, we are exposed only to very low concentrations. Because of this, there is very little to fear. If exposed at high concentrations, however, there are many dangerous side effects that can occur. The most dangerous aspect of the formic acid is its highly corrosive nature when in a concentrated form. Because it is so corrosive, highly concentrated amounts of formic acid can lead to serious injury if it is inhaled, swallowed or touched directly. This includes ulcers, nausea, burns, blisters and extreme discomfort around the affected area. Although it is not likely except under special situations, high concentrations of formic acid should be avoided altogether.
Because of its versatile role in our lives and in nature, formic acid is a very fascinating substance. Aside from its practical uses in agriculture, industry and insect protective mechanisms, formic acid also results in some very interesting effects and interactions. Among these is its role in the digestive system of the anteater. In contrast with most mammals, an anteater’s stomach contains no hydrochloric acid, the primary chemical used for digestion in humans. Because of the high concentration of ants in its diets, the anteater derives all of the digestive juices it needs from the formic acid found in the ants that it eats.
Though it can be very dangerous at unnaturally high concentrations, formic acid is actually a highly versatile and extremely useful food additive and industrial chemical. When consumed at normal levels, it is very quickly and easily metabolized by our bodies, and eliminated in a safe and healthy manner. Nonetheless, it has been found that ingesting highly concentrated amounts of formic acid can result in kidney and liver damage. As such, it is important to understand both the uses and the dangers of this highly versatile chemical.