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Formaldehyde Causes Cancer, Says EPA Draft Assessment


Formaldehyde, found in auto exhaust and scores of everyday products, causes cancer of the nose, nasal cavity, and throat, says a new draft assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An evaluation of the report by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council, however, says the EPA’s draft needs “substantial revision,” which will likely delay the final report.

Everyone is exposed to formaldehyde

The body naturally produces a minute amount of formaldehyde, but it is the formaldehyde from the environment that worries experts. This colorless, flammable industrial chemical is present not only in vehicle exhaust but is also emitted from plywood, particle board, fiber board, laminate flooring, insulation, polyurethane foam, adhesives and sealants, as well as cigarette smoke and fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves.

Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer for years. Research studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have shown higher occurrences of nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.

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In its news release, the National Research Council noted it believes the EPA adequately supports its conclusions that formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat; that it can cause lesions in the respiratory tract; and that it can cause genetic mutations when people are exposed to high concentrations. The Council also says “the evidence is sufficient for EPA to conclude that formaldehyde exposures are a cause of cancers of the nose, nasal cavity, and upper throat.”

However, the Council found fault with the draft’s preparation, noting that it is not “logically consistent” and that it “does not sufficiently document methods and criteria used to identify evidence.” Specifically, the National Research Council noted the draft did not do the following:

  • Provide evidence regarding formaldehyde’s relationship to cancer in other areas of the respiratory tract
  • Support its conclusions regarding the role of formaldehyde in causing leukemias and lymphomas
  • Provide adequate discussion on how asthma may be caused or worsened by exposure to formaldehyde
  • Offer sufficient evidence to support its conclusion that formaldehyde damages the nervous system. The Council believes the data used by the EPA was inadequate.
  • Sufficient support its claim that there is a “convincing” relationship between exposure to formaldehyde and harm to the reproductive system, such as infertility in women.

Although the National Research Council report offers recommendations on how the EPA can revise its formaldehyde draft assessment, this will further delay a final declaration on the toxicity of a substance that has been under investigation since 1998. According to David Andrews, PhD, Environmental Working Group senior scientist, “Formaldehyde is a case study in EPA paralysis.”

Andrews notes in a news release in response to the National Research Council’s statements that although formaldehyde is acknowledged as causing cancer, “political meddling and endless review have stalled agency efforts to reduce consumer and worker exposures.” He warned that “Further delays in EPA’s formaldehyde assessment mean more risk to consumers, and more cancer.”

Environmental Working Group
National Research Council