Chemical industry politics trumps science: National Academies review of styrene and formaldehyde

I presented public comments at a recent National Academies meeting, where committees will review government assessments of the cancer risks of two common industrial chemicals - styrene and formaldehyde. Both were assessed by the prestigious National Toxicology Program (NTP) through an extensive years-long process that included multiple public comment opportunities and several rounds of scientific peer review. The NTP published its public report in June 2011 - called the 12th Report on Carcinogens (ROC) - listing formaldehyde as 'known' and styrene as 'reasonably anticipated' to cause cancer in humans. The process to finalize the 12th ROC was long and arduous, and this should have been the end. But, it's not.

The styrene industry is suing the NTP to have its chemical de-listed (removed) from the ROC, and both the styrene and formaldehyde industries have used political wrangling and allies in Congress to force another review, this time by the National Academies of Science, costing the tax payers several million dollars.(all painstakingly documented in my comments and reported in the press here)

These corporations, often represented by their trade organization, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), argue that science saying their chemical products are harmful is bad science. And, they argue that the Report on Carcinogens and other government reports determining that chemicals are bad for your health are bad for business. (also documented in my comments)

However, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) has a different view. "ASBC and its members believe that ... transparency in the reporting of potentially harmful chemicals allows businesses to create products that are safer for consumers. A safer marketplace helps to dispel consumer fears, spurs innovation, decreases legal liability, and increases shareholder value." (see comments by ASBC here) The ASBC says that consumer's demand for safer non-toxic products has lead to a growth in new markets - along with new jobs - for companies that avoid toxic ingredients. And, public government reports like the Report on Carcinogens provides critical information to companies wanting to compete in the marketplace with safer sustainable products.

ASBC and its members represent over 165,000 businesses and more than 300,000 individual entrepreneurs, executives, and investors across the United States, including local and state chambers of commerce, social enterprises, sustainable businesses, and investor and business incubators. I figure they know what they are talking about!

A recent poll of ASBC members across the political spectrum found that over 90% of small business owners believe that:

  • Chemical companies should be responsible for ensuring that chemicals are safe prior to entering the marketplace;
  • Companies using chemicals of concern should disclose their presence to the public; and
  • There should be an easily accessible database, available to the public, identifying chemicals of high concern to human and environmental health.

Disparaging and delaying health assessments of chemicals does not make them any safer. People still get cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other diseases from harmful exposures to some toxic chemicals.

Industry efforts to challenge negative assessments of styrene, formaldehyde and other government chemical assessments may be profitable for old-school dinosaur companies, but it comes at the expense of market growth and job-creation for sustainable businesses, and safer products for consumers.

(see my comments for details, references/citations, and a review of the scientific arguments surrounding formaldehyde and styrene)

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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