National Academy of Sciences: Formaldehyde Causes Cancer

Washington, D.C. – Congress, at the request of industry, has managed to delay efforts by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen, a significant step for public health protection that other U.S. and international scientific and public health agencies have already taken.

Today the National Academies of Science’s National Research Council (NRC) completed its independent review of EPA’s draft assessment and confirmed formaldehyde as a known cause of cancer of the nose, nasal cavity and throat. However, a final assessment by EPA will likely see further delay as the NRC concluded it “needs substantial revisions”.

EPA, which currently classifies the substance as a probable human carcinogen, first began a revision of its formaldehyde toxicity assessment in 1998, but efforts by some in Congress have slowed the process to a crawl. The latest intervention came from Louisiana Senator David Vitter (R) who in 2009 asked EPA for an independent review of its DRAFT assessment of possible health risks to humans from formaldehyde exposure by the NRC, and held up EPA political nominations until his request was granted.

“Formaldehyde is a case study in EPA paralysis. Despite being widely acknowledged as causing cancer, political meddling and endless review have stalled agency efforts to reduce consumer and worker exposures,” said EWG senior scientist David Andrews, Ph.D. “In 2008, the Government Accountability Office highlighted formaldehyde as one of three pressing examples of political interference hindering the Agency’s efforts to “complete timely, credible assessments” for hazardous chemicals. Further delays in EPA’s formaldehyde assessment mean more risk to consumers, and more cancer.”

Formaldehyde is used in a vast array of industrial and consumer products, and there is widespread agreement that consumer exposures must be reduced to protect health. According to ICIS, an international chemical market research firm, nearly two-thirds of the formaldehyde market is for resins to make construction materials such as plywood, particle board, fiber board, laminate flooring, and insulation and for vehicles coatings and brake linings. Other major uses include plastics for electronic, automotive and consumer goods, polyurethane foam, and adhesives and sealants for construction and consumer goods.

Many Americans are exposed to significant amounts of formaldehyde daily. Vehicle exhausts contain formaldehyde, a byproduct of gasoline combustion, and adhesives in pressed wood products release formaldehyde vapors. Indoor air levels of formaldehyde are often ten times higher than outdoor city air and are highest in new inexpensive housing like the Hurricane Katrina trailers.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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