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Chemical Regulation

Formaldehyde causes leukemia and other cancers, draft EPA review concludes

Long-delayed assessment prompts industry calls to revamp chemical risk program

by Britt E. Erickson
April 14, 2022


Slabs of composite wood in a stack
Credit: Shutterstock
Formaldehyde is commonly used in resins and adhesives found in composite wood products.

Formaldehyde is carcinogenic to humans, a draft risk assessment released April 14 by the US Environmental Protection Agency concludes. The review, conducted by the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, cites evidence that inhalation of formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia in humans.

Formaldehyde is used in making plywood, composite wood items, adhesives, and many other products. Consumers can be exposed to the chemical in tobacco smoke, construction materials, furniture, carpets, and other household products, the assessment says.

The EPA was poised to release the draft formaldehyde review in early 2018, but it abruptly put the assessment on hold under the Donald J. Trump administration. The agency is now planning to use the IRIS assessment to inform its upcoming formaldehyde risk evaluation under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, has been pressuring the EPA to halt the IRIS program—and its formaldehyde review—for many years. In an April 5 statement, the group claims that the process used by the program does not meet the agency’s standards for “transparency, scientific integrity, and a robust, independent peer review process.”

“The IRIS program is not fulfilling its mission. The program has long had deficiencies, especially as it relates to formaldehyde,” Chris Jahn, the ACC’s president and CEO, says in the statement. “ACC has consistently called upon EPA to improve the design and conduct of its chemical assessments.”

Environmental groups welcome the draft formaldehyde assessment after years of delay. “Release of the assessment is a win for scientific integrity that follows years of pressure from industry groups and efforts during the previous administration to suppress the assessment,” Maria Doa, senior director of chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, says in an April 13 blog post.

The draft IRIS assessment will be reviewed by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The EPA is also accepting public comments on the draft document until June 13.



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