Despite Industry Pressure, Government Cancer Report Finally Released

Today the government released its 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) - naming styrene and formaldehyde as among the chemicals that are known (formaldehyde) or reasonably anticipated (styrene) to cause cancer in humans (see the media announcement here). 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. (see NRDC's Dr. Janssen's blog on chemical reform here)

The 12th RoC formaldehyde classification of a known human carcinogen is consistent with the determination by the World Health Organization, EPA, and a recent National Academies review (see my blog here for details and links). Specifically, all these prestigious scientific bodies identified cancer risks of the nasal cavity, and some types of leukemia. It was the leukemia risks that the chemical industry fought so hard against, even though the evidence comes from human epidemiology of industrial workers and embalmers. In fact, industry has used political pressure to hold up EPA's scientific assessment for 13 years, since 1998, and it's still in draft form.

Styrene has been tied up in similar political knots. Styrene is used to manufacture many plastics, latex paints, synthetic rubbers, polyesters and coatings. It is also approved for use in food-contact materials, and as an FDA-approved synthetic flavoring in ice cream and candy (see 12th RoC fact sheet here, and EPA fact sheet here).  It is regulated as a Hazardous Air Pollutant by EPA, and considered possibly carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization. EPA has been trying to update its styrene assessment since 1998, with no end in sight.

Atrazine, a toxic pesticide that is associated with birth defects in people, and in lab animal studies has been shown to cause cancer and impaired reproductive and immune development, was not listed in the 12th RoC after significant industry pressure (see letters from the grain growers here and from Syngenta, the chemical manufacturer here). More about atrazine harms is here.

The chemical industry fought the truth, the science, and the public - but, in the end our government experts came through for us, giving the public accurate information about the health risks from chemicals that are commonly found in our homes, schools, and workplaces.

What we really need to prevent this from continuing to happen is a chemical regulatory law that works to ensure safe use of chemicals BEFORE, not after they are sold to us. I hope you can support reform of our Nation's chemical law, called TSCA (more information here).

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

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

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.