Styrene and formaldehyde new culprits in cancer

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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Our environment is rapidly becoming saturated with a smorgasbord of toxic compounds - of our own making, for the most part – that are proving to be bad for our health. From the hormone-disruptors found in perfume and plastics, to the cancer-causing by-products of bleaching in our water (do we REALLY need snow-white toilet paper?), the aware citizen is fast becoming informed of just how bad some of these man-made synthetics are.

Now the National Institutes of Health has declared another pair of toxic culprits, styrene and formaldehyde, carcinogenic.
Fine, you say. Save for morticians, who uses formaldehyde? And styrene? What’s that? Turns out, these compounds are far more prevalent than one might guess.

Formaldehyde, a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical, is widely used to make resins for household items such as composite wood products, paper product coatings, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textile finishes. It is an ingredient in the making of particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. And ladies, beware: formaldehyde is in nail polish remover. Formaldehyde is linked to leukemia and a rare type of nasal cancer.

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Most of us know styrene from the old-style ‘Styrofoam’ cups we used to grab at the local donut shop. Heck, they might still dispense them there. Doubtless some styrene residue wound up in that hot cup of java. But styrene is also used in cigarettes, making smokers and inhalers of second-hand smoke exposed. The bulk of styrene, however, is used in various building and manufacturing processes, such as the making of boats, tubs, and showers. Some 90,000 workers in these industries are routinely exposed to high doses of styrene dust. Health effects from exposure to styrene may involve the central nervous system and include complaints of headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating, and a feeling of intoxication.

The American Composite Manufacturers Association is understandably balking at the NIH announcement. After all, such a declaration is sure to be followed by the filing of lawsuits. It will also necessitate the putting in place of mandated safety procedures for workers exposed to these compounds. This will require a considerable investment in training, protective materials and compliance assurance.
The Report on Carcinogens is a congressionally mandated document that is prepared for the HHS Secretary by the NTP. The report identifies agents, substances, mixtures, or exposures in two categories: known to be a human carcinogen and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.

A listing in the Report on Carcinogens does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer. Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure, and an individual's susceptibility to a substance, affect whether a person will develop cancer.

Once a substance is nominated by the public or private sector and selected for consideration, it undergoes an extensive evaluation with numerous opportunities for scientific and public input.

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