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Company Owned By Cancer Research Donor Lobbied Against Designation of Formaldehyde as Carcinogen

A New Yorker profile of David Koch, a promiment donor to cancer research, raises questions about conflicts between his business and philanthropic interests.

Aug. 25: This post has been updated.

A prominent philanthropist, cancer survivor, and American businessman, David Koch, has given millions to the cause of cancer research, while his company—Koch Industries—has lobbied against formal recognition of formaldehyde as a carcinogen, The New Yorker reported in a piece published today.

Koch sits on the advisory board of the National Cancer Institute—a position he was appointed to in 2004 by President Bush, reported The New Yorker.

The National Cancer Institute published a study in 2009 concluding that formaldehyde causes cancer in humans. Here’s The New Yorker, describing that study’s findings:

The study tracked twenty-five thousand patients for an average of forty years; subjects exposed to higher amounts of formaldehyde had significantly higher rates of leukemia. These results helped lead an expert panel within the National Institutes of Health to conclude that formaldehyde should be categorized as a known carcinogen, and be strictly controlled by the government.

As we’ve noted, prior to the May 2009 study, the National Cancer Institute had also performed a preliminary study that linked formaldehyde to leukemia, but members of Congress including Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and David Vitter, R-La., managed to delay the EPA from officially designating the chemical as a “known carcinogen.” (The EPA in June, however, released a draft assessment of formaldehyde that supports that designation, but it’s not yet official.)

In 2005, Koch Industries bought Georgia-Pacific, one of the world’s largest plywood manufacturers and a major formaldehyde producer. The company has donated to both Vitter and Inhofe.

In a letter to federal health authorities sent last December, the company’s vice-president of environmental affairs wrote that “the company ‘strongly disagrees’ with the N.I.H. panel’s conclusion that formaldehyde should be treated as a known human carcinogen,” reported The New Yorker.

The National Cancer Institute’s director, Harold Varmus, told The New Yorker that at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center—where he used to work and where Koch donated $40 million dollars and serves on the board—it wasn’t uncommon for donors to have large business interests, but “the one thing we wouldn’t tolerate in our board members is tobacco.” Varmus was “surprised,” however, when The New Yorker told him about Koch Industries’ stance on formaldehyde.

We’ve asked Koch Industries to comment the matter but have not yet heard back.

For more, read the full New Yorker piece—a profile of David Koch and how he’s influenced American politics for right-wing causes.

Update: Koch Industries didn't respond with a comment when we emailed and called, but has issued a response to The New Yorker piece in the comments section of this post. It links to a fuller response on its own website, from which I've pulled out the relevant section on formaldehyde: 

We believe any/all regulations should be based on sound science. Georgia-Pacific meets standards currently set for formaldehyde in a variety of applications and has provided comments on formaldehyde’s classification as part of the established regulatory development process in the United States. The debate over EPA's recent review of formaldehyde is not simply an industry concern. Several federal agencies have submitted formal comments urging caution and questioning some of the data and information on which EPA's decision was based. There are numerous indications that the science EPA has employed may not be the best and to make any final decisions prior to the current comprehensive scientific review of formaldehyde by the National Academy of Sciences would be inappropriate.

We had originally asked Koch Industries whether there's a conflict between David Koch's position on the advisory board of the National Cancer Institute and his company's opposite stance on formaldehyde. The company did not address this question in its response. 

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