Why the Federal Government Finally Acted on Chemical Safety

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Tom Collicott/Graphistock/Corbis

Our chemical safety system is an outdated mess — and for years, the failure of the government to act on formaldehyde was proof positive of that fact.

Formaldehyde is an important industrial chemical widely used to manufacture building products and in embalming fluid. It’s also an extremely nasty substance that can cause irritation in the eyes and breathing problems in human beings at elevated levels (elevated being more than 0.1 parts per million). It has been shown to increase cancer risk in animals, and has long been suspected to cause cancer in human beings.

Formaldehyde was declared a toxic substance by Canadians in 1999, some uses have been banned in Europe and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has called it a known carcinogen. Yet despite the growing evidence of formaldehyde’s dangers, the U.S. government has been unable to regulate it, hamstrung by the limitations of the more than 30-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act.

Years late, though, that seems to be changing. On Friday the Department of Health and Human Services released its latest Report on Human Carcinogens, and formaldehyde was finally listed:

The industrial chemical formaldehyde and a botanical known as aristolochic acids are listed as known human carcinogens. Six other substances — captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide (in powder or hard metal form), certain inhalable glass wool fibers, o-nitrotoluene, riddelliine, and styrene — are added as substances that are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. With these additions, the 12th Report on Carcinogens now includes 240 listings. It is available at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

The report found that concerning amounts of formaldehyde could be encountered in plywood and particle boards, as well as in hair salons and in mortuaries. While the most intense source of exposure will be for workers in some manufacturing plants — who might encounter large concentrations of formaldehyde on a frequent basis — ordinary consumers should seek to avoid exposure to the chemical as well. (We reported on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s warning in April about the Brazilian blowout hair treatment, which can expose salon workers and customers to dangerous levels of formaldehyde.) Studies of mortuary workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have shown increased incidences of certain kinds of rare nasal cancers.

From the New York Times:

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, said that formaldehyde is both worrisome and inescapable. “It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,” he said. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.”

Consumers can reduce their exposure to formaldehyde by avoiding pressed-wood products or buying only those that are labeled as U.L.E.F. (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde), N.A.F. (no added formaldehyde) or C.A.R.B. (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant.

The evidence against styrene is less clear, especially for ordinary consumers. While workers who build boats, car parts and shower stalls — and are exposed to concentrated levels of styrene — seem to be at a greater risk for leukemia and other blood cancers, ordinary consumers who might only be exposed to styrene in the tiny concentrations in plastic utensils face unknown risks, perhaps comparable to murky threat posed by cell phones.

For public health advocates who’ve waited years for this report to come out — it’s been delayed in part by lobbying from the chemical industry — the conclusions are welcome news. Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a blog post yesterday:

This is a really big deal, because the chemical industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent these assessments — actually to prevent the whole report — from being finalized. It’s been held up for four years by industry interference, but the public has a right to know about the chemical risks that are foisted upon us through air and water pollution, off-gassing from consumer products, inadequate or unenforced regulations, etc.

The chemical industry, which Sass notes has fought against the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific assessment of formaldehyde for over a decade, complained that the new report would cost American jobs. From Cal Dooley, the CEO of the American Chemistry Council:

Because formaldehyde is used in many products — from building materials to pharmaceuticals — this unscientific decision by HHS could risk thousands of U.S. jobs. That is why this decision by the department is such an egregious contradiction of President Obama’s pledge in a March 9, 2009, executive order that ‘Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration…’

The report comes at a sensitive time for the White House, which had just launched a blitz against unnecessary regulations that were holding back business. (That could be why the report was released late on a Friday afternoon — otherwise known as the graveyard shift for news.) But there’s a difference between annoying red tape and rules made to defend public health, and the federal government deserves kudos for allowing policy to finally catch up to science.

Industry, of course, will argue the opposite — that in this case politics has trumped science. They’re not entirely wrong — because science, especially at the frontier, is inherently uncertain, every risk assessment is driven by politics as well as data. But when you hear industry complain that a regulatory decision was “unscientific,” be on your guard. What they usually mean is that it went against their interests. We only have to look to the history of the tobacco industry to see the way that business can use science as a shield, a way to raise doubt and delay regulatory action — sometimes, at the cost of human life.

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