New Government Report Says Formaldehyde Causes Cancer

The powerful industrial chemical formaldehyde, along with a botanical called aristolochic acids and which is found in some herbal remedies, are “known human carcinogens” according to the 12th and latest Report on Carcinogens released Friday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

The report also said styrene and 5 other chemicals may cause cancer in humans. That brings the total of known and suspected carcinogens on the government list to 240.

Formaldehyde – widely used in products ranging from plywood to nail polish remover to hair straightening formulas, not to mention embalming fluid – has been suspect for some time now, and has also been known to cause a host of allergic reactions and respiratory problems. So why did it take so long for the government to confirm what many have long believed to be true?

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council says the chemical industry has tried to generate a perception of scientific uncertainty surrounding the evidence. As Sass notes in her blog:

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 government scientists noted concern about the levels of formaldehyde in plywood, particle board, mortuaries and hair salons. The report also links formaldehyde to some types of leukemia and cancers of the nasal cavity, especially in manufacturing plant workers and embalmers, who have more frequent exposure to the chemical.

The fact of the matter is that other countries have taken concerns about formaldehdye far more seriously than the U.S. up until now. According to Time magazine:

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.

Not surprisingly, the chemical industry is fighting back as The New York Times reports:

Cal Dooley, president and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents companies that make and use polystyrene and formaldehyde, rejected the report’s conclusions. “We are extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process,” he said.

Some in the industry have promised to continue fighting the report, and will appeal elements of its findings. But some manufacturers already have begun using alternatives to formaldehyde in their products.

Of course, formaldhyde — a formidable industrial product used by millions upon millions of people every day — is all around us. As the Times points out:

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.”

So what to do? Avoid it as much as possible. Find alternatives to formaldehyde-based nail polish removers and the like. And, as the Times suggests: 

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.

Related reading:

Senate Passes Styrofoam Container Ban In California 

Is Your Clothing Laced With Formaldehyde?

Photo courtesy of Amy Loves Yah via Flickr


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle6 years ago

We didn't know this already?!

Kate M.
K H6 years ago

Whether it's carcinogenic or not, why are they still using it when it's known to be such a horrendous allergen for so many people? I know several people who are irritated by exposure to it, and I am as well. I would love to be one of those superhumans who can sit there exposed to every cleaning chemical, hand sanitizer, air freshener, perfume, fabric sizing etc. and not get a raging headache. But I guess I am in the minority for not being so, and those unaffected people hold priority over those who are like myself.

dawn w.
Dawn W6 years ago

Did anyone think formaldehyde was healthy?

Randy Robertson
Randy Robertson6 years ago

Suffer allergies? Quit using fabric softeners, and if you do use them on your bedding, don't make the bed in the morning...let it air out!!!

Shirley M.
Shirley Marsh6 years ago didn't know about formaldehyde? Y'all been taking a 'Rip van Winkle' nap? And what about all the other additives and chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis - think these might also have something to do with all that ails us today?

Keep eating, breathing, drinking, washing in and wearing stuff saturated in chemicals and things will only get worse, not better. The best way to stop this proliferation of public poisoning is to get educated and then bycott the guilty products and their profit crazy producers!

Far out!!!

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

Michael MacDonald

I was being sarcastic, merely giving voice to what I personally believe IS the rationale for the actions of most of corporate America.

I fully back social justice everywhere, am a proud union member, and in no way condone the dismantling of worker protections currently well under way in the USA. My grandpa stood shoulder to shoulder with Fightin' Bob LaFollette back in the day, so I was raised fairly progressive.

Sorry, guess I should've said that in the post.

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

Mmmm...And how long has formaldehyde been around?

Shelley B.
Shelley Birnbaum6 years ago

It is a disgrace that NIH new this for years but waited for David Koch to resign from the board before they would announce it. He was more important to them as a board member than people's lives.

Brian P.
.6 years ago

This doesn't come as a shock to those living outside the great American bubble...why is it that revelations like this somehow become more relevant once they have an American slant to them?

Considering how many chemicals are in personal care products and foods without adequate independent testing and FDA (or equivalent agency) approval, the ever rising rates of cancer in the world shouldn't come as a surprise.

Industry claims it can regulate itself without government oversight but we all know how well that works out when it comes to public safety!

Michael MacDonald

@monica r.
I don't think that people working in unsafe conditions in other countries is a good argument to keep people working in them here.
If anything, we need to get safe working conditions for everyone around the world.
Do you want to go work somewhere that's going to give you cancer.
I'm sure you wouldn't.
It's easy to say such things when it's not your life on the line.