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.
Photo courtesy of Amy Loves Yah via Flickr