National Academies fully supports Report on Carcinogens assessment - formaldehyde still causes cancer, despite industry arguments otherwise

The National Academies of Science (NAS) issued its assessment of the cancer risks from formaldehyde, a common and highly toxic chemical found in our furniture, home building materials, and clothing. The National Academies conducted a thorough and rigorous scientific review, and concluded that it posed a threat to humans for three types of cancer: nasopharyngeal cancer; sinonasal cancer; and myeloid leukemia.

And, in 2009 the World Health Organization also confirmed the science that formaldehyde causes cancer in people.

What makes this NAS review novel is not the cancer findings, because those had already been identified by various international and national government scientific assessments. No, this review was politically motivated, the result of a campaign by the chemical industry and its allies in Congress to protect formaldehyde and styrene, another common chemical linked to cancer. Part of that effort has been a vicious attack on government scientific assessments, to distort and discredit any evidence linking toxic chemicals to diseases, disabilities, or death. In a “kill the messenger” campaign, the Report on Carcinogens – the prestigious biennial government report that alerts the public to chemicals that may cause cancer in people – was compelled to undergo review by the National Academies after it listed formaldehyde and styrene as “known” and “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer, respectively.

This NAS formaldehyde report, along with the recent NAS styrene report are the strongest possible statement from the scientific community that:

  • the Report on Carcinogens got it right the first time;
  • formaldehyde - and styrene – may cause cancer in humans; and
  • our government scientists are doing the best job possible of providing thorough and credible scientific information to the public about the health risks from chemicals.

I couldn’t agree more!

In particular, the NAS committee identified the risks of myeloid leukemia associated with formaldehyde, based on several occupational studies of workers with this type of cancer. Although the chemical industry had disputed this evidence, science won the day, and now hopefully workers will be better protected and future cancers will be prevented.

The NAS also noted that although the mechanism of cancer is not completely understood, it is not necessary to know the mechanism to know that an agent causes cancer (NAS page 9). This refutes a frequent industry argument that demands more complete understanding of the cellular mechanism of disease before it can be linked to their chemical product.

The NAS did have one suggestion for improvement – that the Report on Carcinogens could have done a better job of discussing why “weaker, uninformative, inconsistent, or conflicting evidence did not alter [its] conclusions”. I read this as saying that the explanation for why many industry-sponsored studies didn’t alter the conclusions could have been better explained. I guess the explanation is that good science shouldn’t be subsumed by bad science that attempts to create a false controversy – no different than tobacco or climate change.

But, the American Chemistry Council – the trade group representing big chemical manufacturers that make formaldehyde, styrene, and other highly profitable hazardous chemicals – issued a press release today with the blatantly false title, “The Safety of Formaldehyde is Well-Studied and Supported By Robust Science”. The statement makes several arguments.

  • First, that formaldehyde is only dangerous if a person is exposed. That is, cigarettes can kill you, but only if you smoke them. Good point, chemical industry. Unfortunately, people can’t avoid formaldehyde because it leaches as a gas from glues used in plywood and compressed wood products in people’s homes, such as furniture frames, kitchen cupboards, bed frames, and shelving. Remember the temporary housing trailers that people were provided after Hurricane Katrina, that later had to be evacuated because indoor air formaldehyde levels were dangerously high? That’s the problem with formaldehyde – it off-gases into the surrounding air.
  • Second, the ACC was “perplexed” that this report “appears to conflict” with an earlier review of formaldehyde by the NAS in 2011. The ACC notes that the 2011 report noted, “Inconsistencies in the epidemiologic data, the weak animal data, and the lack of mechanistic data”. There is that tobacco and climate change argument again……the science isn’t complete, and the controversy means that formaldehyde somehow must be “safe”. Sorry, chemical industry, but science doesn’t work that way. As the NAS stated, weaker, uninformative, inconsistent, or conflicting information doesn’t change what we know from the stronger, well-conducted studies showing that formaldehyde causes cancer. How many cancers will it take to convince the ACC? Too many.

When put under the spotlight of scientific scrutiny, the chemical industry allegations against the Report on Carcinogens added up to little more than a baseless defense of their toxic products. The chemical industry needs to start producing safer products, and stop attacking independent science and defending cancer-causing chemicals.

We look forward to more assessments from the National Toxicology Program and other government chemical assessment programs, so that the public and regulators can move forward with their job of protecting American families from cancer-causing chemicals.

The full National Academies review of formaldehyde is here and the news release and summary of the report are here. A Greenwire news story about the report is here.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

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