IARC confirms link between formaldehyde and leukemia

I won't bury the lead: last week the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the most prestigious international body for cancer assessment in the world, determined that sufficient evidence exists to link formaldehyde with leukemia, a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. The link with leukemia means that the overall impact of formaldehyde on human cancers is much greater than previously thought.  

The recent history of formaldehyde provides important lessons on the current hurdles, both legal and political, that EPA faces in its efforts to protect the public, and underscores the need for legislation to reform the nation's policies on protection from toxic chemicals.

Formaldehyde is a toxic gas that is used as a binding agent in many products including plywood, furniture, carpeting and particle board. It contaminated the air inside housing trailers that were provided to many families that lost their homes after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  In fact, the "Katrina trailers" issue is the consequence of actions taken by the Bush administration in 2004 to weaken public protections from formaldehyde, for the specific benefit of the chemical, plywood and timber industries. A contemporary account of that effort by the Los Angeles Times can be found here.  In short, the Bush-era EPA's political appointees issued a rule exempting dozens of plywood manufacturing facilities from adopting pollution controls to reduce public exposure to formaldehyde, as required under the Clean Air Act.  The justification was based upon an industry-funded assessment of the risk formaldehyde posed for nasal and throat cancers.  The agency ignored emerging evidence of the link between formaldehyde and leukemia, since consideration of that additional risk of exposure would have reduced the number of facilities that could be exempted from adopting pollution controls.

At the same time as EPA's Air Office was exempting facilities from adopting pollution controls (a decision that was subsequently successfully challenged by NRDC and overturned by a federal court in 2007) the agency's Office of Research and Development was working to complete its own reassessment of the hazards posed by formaldehyde.  That assessment was being conducted by the agency's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program.  IRIS hazard assessments are frequently used as the basis for setting cleanup standards for air, water and contaminated soil.  As EPA moved forward with weakening Clean Air Act protections from formaldehyde, it simultaneously blocked the IRIS program from finalizing its revised assessment of the hazards posed by formaldehyde, which took into account recent studies, including one by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which found additional evidence supporting the link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia. 

Fast forward to September 2009 and the Obama Administration's nominee to head the Office of Research and Development (which is where the IRIS program is located) is being held-up by Senator David Vitter (R-LA) who wants the assessment to be sent to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for additional review. Now, however, IARC has concluded that exposure to formaldehyde is linked to leukemia. From here on out, formaldehyde's link to leukemia simply must be considered by environmental and public health agencies, and it increases the imperative that strong protections for the public be adopted quickly. 

Ultimately, EPA's revised hazard assessment of formaldehyde may lead to more stringent controls of formaldehyde emissions from some factories, but is that enough to protect the public?  What else can EPA do to protect people from this cancer-causing chemical?  Unfortunately, the current answer is: very little. This is because the law intended to give EPA broad authority to protect the public from unsafe chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is written in a way (and has been interpreted by a federal court of appeals) to make it almost impossible for EPA to take action to protect the public from formaldehyde and other existing unsafe chemicals.  By way of example, EPA's 10-year effort to ban most uses of asbestos, were rejected by a court (after an industry challenge to the rules) as not meeting the law's stringent standards. In fact, when organizations and citizens (including people made sick by living in "Katrina trailers" petitioned EPA to adopt California's strong emission standards for formaldehyde in composite wood products, EPA rejected the petition saying that current information was insufficient to meet the test for agency action under TSCA. In short, the central law for protecting the public from unsafe chemicals is broken and needs to be fixed.  Legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act is expected to be introduced in Congress soon.  Revisions to TSCA will need provisions that allow EPA to quickly take action to protect the public from chemicals that we know are unsafe, and that we know people are being exposed to.  That would certainly include formaldehyde, asbestos, and a number of other chemicals.  

As of now, protection for the public is running years, and even decades behind the science (and behind common sense). The science increasingly confirms the serious health threats posed by chemicals that are ubiquitous in our lives.  Perhaps the new IARC findings on formaldehyde and leukemia will be the "final straw" that can break industry opposition to effective laws and strong safety standards to protect public health.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

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

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