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Chemical Regulation

Formaldehyde poses health risks to workers and consumers, EPA finds

Draft evaluation could prompt agency to ban or restrict certain uses under TSCA

by Britt E. Erickson
March 18, 2024

Image showing slabs of unassembled particle boards with wooden dowels.
Credit: Shutterstock
Composite wood furniture is a source of formaldehyde in indoor air.

A battle over the health risks of formaldehyde—a chemical that is nearly everywhere—is raging again. The latest showdown is over the US Environmental Protection Agency’s draft evaluation, released March 15, of dozens of occupational and consumer uses of the chemical under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The 151-page draft evaluation on the human health risks of formaldehyde builds on a controversial draft assessment released by the EPA in 2022 under its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. The IRIS assessment pointed to evidence that inhalation of formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal and other cancers in humans.

The EPA now concludes that it is less certain about the risks of nasopharyngeal cancer. But the new assessment finds noncancer effects like eye irritation, allergies, asthma, and reproductive toxicity associated with inhalation of formaldehyde.

The chemical industry fought for years to delay the IRIS assessment of the cancer risks of formaldehyde. Now the industry is challenging the agency’s conclusions regarding the chemical’s noncancer health risks, particularly with respect to occupational exposure limits.

The EPA’s suggested workplace limits “are unworkable and ignore practices that are already in place to protect workers, including the use of personal protective equipment,” the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, says in a statement. The group claims that the limits are lower than levels of formaldehyde detected in ambient air and inside US homes.

The EPA acknowledges that assessing the health risks of formaldehyde presents a unique challenge because naturally formed formaldehyde, such as that produced from decaying leaves, is ubiquitous. “It is often difficult to understand what contribution various conditions of use are making to the total level of formaldehyde to which a person is exposed in any given place at any given time,” the agency says.

Many products contain formaldehyde, including composite wood furniture, plastics, coatings, and adhesives. Formaldehyde is a common building block used to make chemicals for agriculture, food safety, medical devices, semiconductors, and many other applications. In addition to releases from natural sources, formaldehyde is produced when other chemicals break down in the environment and when things are burned.

The EPA is accepting comments on the draft assessment until May 14. It is also planning to hold a meeting on May 20–23 of the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, an external group of experts, to discuss the draft. After the EPA finalizes the risk evaluation, it will move on to manage the risks through restrictions or bans on certain uses.



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