An independent panel of scientific experts is questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that formaldehyde causes respiratory cancers, leukemia, and several other health problems, including asthma.
EPA preliminarily concluded last June that formaldehyde can cause cancer in humans when it is inhaled and that up to one case of cancer could occur for every 1,000 people who breathe exposure levels the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention considers typical.
But in a review of the agency's findings, a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) says that some of EPA's conclusions about the potential health effects of the widely used industrial chemical go beyond available scientific evidence.
The NRC analysis finds that the evidence is sufficient for EPA to conclude that formaldehyde causes cancer in the nose, nasal cavity, and upper throat. But the report asserts that EPA failed to support its determination that the chemical causes cancer in other sites in the respiratory tract or leukemia.
"EPA should revisit its arguments and include detailed descriptions of the criteria that were used to weigh evidence and assess causality," the committee says. The report also notes that EPA's draft assessment provides "little discussion about how asthma could be caused or exacerbated by formaldehyde exposure."
EPA has been working since 1998 to update its formaldehyde toxicity assessment. The agency's previous evaluation, completed in 1989, found the substance to be a "probable" human carcinogen. The chemical industry has been fighting efforts to classify formaldehyde as a "known" carcinogen, a designation that could lead to more stringent regulation.
NRC weighed in on EPA's latest findings after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), an industry ally, put pressure on EPA to request an independent study. In 2009, Vitter, who received more than $61,000 in campaign contributions from the chemical industry during the last election cycle, blocked the confirmation of Yale University chemist Paul Anastas to head EPA's R&D office until the agency agreed to seek the NRC review.
EPA says it is examining NRC's recommendations. "EPA conducts peer review to assure only the highest quality science is used as the basis of our actions. Strong science depends on peer review and the robust discussions among scientists represents a strong scientific process," the agency says in a statement.
Formaldehyde is a case study in EPA paralysis, says David Andrews, senior scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. "Despite being widely acknowledged as causing cancer, political meddling and endless review have stalled agency efforts to reduce consumer and worker exposures," he remarks.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer designated formaldehyde as a known carcinogen in 2006. In May 2009, the National Cancer Institute released study results linking formaldehyde exposure to leukemia. The U.S. National Toxicology Program released similar findings later that year.
Industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, back the NRC panel's findings. "The levels of formaldehyde at which most people are exposed are not high enough to cause adverse health effects, according to the large body of research available," says ACC Senior Director Ann Mason. "We call on EPA to adopt the NRC findings when revising the risk assessment for formaldehyde."
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.