National Academy of Sciences: Formaldehyde Still Causes Cancer in Humans

Today the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its long-awaited report on formaldehyde. The report confirms EPA’s determination that formaldehyde causes cancer in humans. The Academies recommended that EPA re-write its report to more clearly communicate the scientific reasoning underpinning its assessment, and to finalize it as soon as possible.

In addition to scientific consensus that formaldehyde causes cancer of the nose and nasal cavity in humans, EPA identified a risk of leukemia associated with formaldehyde. Although the chemical industry disputes this, The National Cancer Institute (NCI), the World Health Organization (WHO/IARC), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) have all identified a possible link with leukemia. While asking EPA to state its reasoning more concisely, and to separate out leukemia risks from lymphoma risks, the Academies supported EPA in developing a cancer risk estimate for leukemia.

But, let's not lose sight of what is important. Formaldehyde has been known for years to cause cancer. And, it contaminates the air in our homes and workplaces, leaching from plywood and particle board furniture and other household products. The people who are still inhaling this toxic and cancer-causing chemical deserve protection.

Unfortunately, the Academies also questioned EPA's decision to develop its risk estimates based on observed cancers in laboratory animal studies and from government-supported workplace studies that included tens of thousands of people. Instead, the Academies seems to want EPA to re-consider using a mathematical model of nose cancer that was developed with industry funding, which fails to account for leukemia risks, and which has been widely criticized. Importantly, the model proposes that formaldehyde only causes cancer at higher doses, but may be safe at low doses. Although EPA may need to better communicate its decision to move away from this model, as a publicly-funded Agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, it would be a dangerous precedent to follow the regulated industry down the road of calling cancer-causing chemicals safe, at any dose, based on a mathematical model.

It's time to move forward to eliminate dangerous exposures to formaldehyde.

Today's report contains strong recommendations from the Academies about the way that EPA communicates its assessments, including that EPA needs to be more transparent about its methods, its criteria for evaluating individual studies, and its system for assessing the weight of evidence.  

The Academies encouraged EPA to complete its re-write as soon as possible, and we agree.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

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

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