Journalism in the Public Interest

Stricter Regulation of Formaldehyde Remains Uncertain Despite Carcinogen Ruling

The Department of Health and Human Services has classified formaldehyde as “a known carcinogen,” but it remains to be seen if the new designation will lead to tighter U.S. formaldehyde regulations.


Trailers supplied by FEMA to Katrina survivors were found to have harmful levels of formaldehyde in them. Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services classified the chemical as 'a known carcinogen.' (Bill Starling/ProPublica)

Late last week, the Department of Health and Human Services classified formaldehyde as "a known carcinogen," adding its verdict to two similar reports released by key agencies since 2009.

But despite the growing scientific consensus about how formaldehyde can affect human health, it remains to be seen if the studies will lead to tighter U.S. formaldehyde regulations.

As we've previously reported, the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to update its chemical risk assessment for formaldehyde since 1998, but has been stalled repeatedly by the chemical manufacturing industry.

EPA assessments are the country's gold standard for how dangerous a chemical is. The formaldehyde assessment would undoubtedly influence the stringency of a rule the EPA is developing on how much of the chemical can safely be released from construction materials that contain it

In 2009, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., maneuvered successfully to delay the assessment by putting a hold on the nomination of a key EPA appointee and forcing the agency to send its draft to the National Academy of Sciences for review.

Vitter has received substantial campaign contributions from the nation's largest formaldehyde manufacturers and users. After the EPA agreed to send its assessment to the NAS, a top industry lobbyist, Charles Grizzle, threw Vitter a fundraising party, requesting donations of $1,000 a plate.

The NAS finished reviewing the EPA assessment in April, sending back a long list of questions and advising the EPA not to finalize the document until it could show exactly how formaldehyde causes cancer, a biological mechanism known as the "mode of action."

Dr. Peter Infante, a former director of the Office of Carcinogen Identification and Classification at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called the NAS critique "arrogant" because "we don't know the mode of action for most things that cause cancer."

Christopher De Rosa, a former senior toxicologist for the Centers for Disease Control, said the HHS study might "galvanize the EPA's political will to go forward with the risk assessment because it represents a convergence of opinions worldwide in terms of formaldehyde being a known carcinogen."

A spokesperson for the EPA did not respond to questions about how the HHS report will affect the EPA's risk assessment.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents the chemical industry, said in a written statement that the HHS report flies in the face of the Obama administration's commitment to sound science.

"We are extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process and believe this report by HHS is an egregious contradiction to what the president said early in his administration," said Chemistry Council Chief Executive Cal Dooley.

Gee what will they substitute in embalming fluid? According to Wikipedia 20 million liters of this stuff is used per year in the U.S.. I assure you that I will not be contributing to the problem. Now I wonder if cremation adds to our carbon footprint.

Catherine Rodgers

June 14, 2011, 2:48 p.m.

If this country had a Single Payer Healthcare System, harmful chemicals would have been outlawed years ago, because the government would not want to pay the costs associated with them.

I agree, Catherine. This also lends credence to claims that for-profit insurance companies don’t really care if we get sick. They’ll just raise their rates or terminate coverage. If client wellness was on their radar, they’d be screaming too.

About the formaldehyde, as a worker in the construction industry for many years, I can attest that almost every wood product in a home contains some formaldehyde. Wafer board, plywood and fiberboard all use formaldehyde as a preservative. It’s pretty much inescapable anymore.

Dr. Jason Cerutti

June 14, 2011, 3:46 p.m.

Never mind about formaldelhyde being put in us when we die - what about when it is put in us when we are alive - vaccination!!!  They’ll tell you it’s only trace amounts and it’s safe but what carcinogen that is directly injected into your blood stream would be considered safe???

Ditto on the vaccination concerns. I have yet to read a news article about this latest report that mentions childhood vaccines as a source of exposure to formaldehyde. Why not?

Formaldehyde is a fundamental compound in many cellular functions.  We would all drop dead immediately if the formaldehyde were somehow removed from our bodies.
You are all suffering from chemophobia.
Grow up and get real.

Salt, nitrogen, potassium, copper and zinc are among an array of compounds and minerals “fundamental in cellular functions”.  Yet, too much of any of those things, and many others, will kill you, or make you “drop dead immediately”. 

You are convoluting the story here “Get Real”.  The fact is that internationally and within our great country, sound science has proven a high risk to formaldehyde exposure.  But because money is being made, people like you are not willing to accept the basic truth.

Hope you all sleep well at night.

Perhaps Get Real would like to p[rove his theory and become a cabinetmaker who inhales formaldehyde in dust from particle board, MDF, and melamine all day. Of course melamine is what China added to pet food to get a false positive for protein that subsequently killed and ruined kidneys in pets all over the world. Melamine is the plastic coating over the formaldehyde infused pressed material your food and dishes are stored on in your cabinets. Perhaps Get Real needs to stay in a FEMA trailer sealed in with all the fumes for a summer and prove how much chemotolerance he has.

Mary Nash Stoddard

June 14, 2011, 7:20 p.m.

Formaldehyde is a well-documented breakdown product of Aspartame and Neotame ingestion.
Mary Nash Stoddard/Author: Deadly Deception Story of Aspartame (Odenwald Press 1998)

I live in Washgington State and seem to remember in the 1960s or 70s people who lived in mobile homes and worked in mobile home factories were dying, and suing mobile home manufacturers, because of formaldahyde in building materials.  Wasn’t formaldahyde outlawed then?

The main reason that formaldahyde hasn’t been outlawed is because our politicians are PAID for by companies that produce products that contain this carcinogen (see article above…..the illustrious Senator Vitter was paid handsomely by the manufacturers, etc.).  Until we STOP allowing our politicians to accept “bribes” from manufacturers, we’ll NEVER get anything done that would contribute to our good health!

Formaldehyde(CH2O) is a carcinogen only to morticians. Low level non-occupational exposure to CH2O does not pose a increased risk for cancer. Applying a stringent new rule to CH2O that covers all individuals is a waste of money when only occupational exposure experienced by a very small number of people warrants it. These are the facts, deal with them.

Mike H, what are you saying here?  Are you suggesting that a few people being poisoned on the job by formaldehyde is okay?  Is the industry regulated?  Thanks.

I am saying that without clarification a new set of regulations will be enacted that impact people and industries not at risk, costing money and jobs.

I don’t think that it’s ok to say “Well, only X amount of people died from exposure.”  Death quantification is another argument altogether, Mike.

The current discussion, which was spawned from the articles in ProPublica, relate to the FACT that formaldehyde IS a carcinogen and that certain individuals in congress are being paid to delay, or put off altogether, the EPA’s assessment. 

As long as the assessment is put off, it is difficult to enact change.  I don’t subscribe to the argument that since it will cost money we shouldn’t enact an effort to create a better alternative to formaldehyde.  What about the money it will cost to treat those that have and will become sick from exposure?  What about the cost to their families when they can no longer work?  It’s a domino effect that, in the end, can be every bit as damaging as the cost that may be incurred by finding a better product to use to treat plywood, etc.

I’d also be interested to know about any documentation or studies that back up your theory that formaldehyde is only dangerous as it relates to occupational exposure.  I don’t think the folks that have become sick living in trailers or by simply living next to pollution sites would necessarily agree with you.  The rates of leukemia and other forms of cancer in relation to formaldehyde exposure are just to high to write off as coincidence.

Finally, you only suggest that morticians are at risk.  What about the people working in the factories that utilize this stuff to make building products everyday?  What about the shipping companies that then haul this stuff, and the retailers who sell it?  Construction and demolition crews?  Homeowners?  Risk and exposure aren’t limited to a select few.

@ Tom, please read my post again. Its not about how many people have or have not died from CH2O exposure .. its about the demographic of the effected group. Since CH2O exposure has been shown to be a carcinogen only for occupations directly exposed to large quantities of it (morticians and lab workers) does it make sense to regulate it in a such a way that every user of CH2O and everyone who is exposed to CH2O as a consumer also be covered under the same burdensome regulations when there is no evidence, and in fact there is evidence to the contrary, that these exposure levels are not harmful? 

Another example to illustrate my point: if homes built on floodplains are more prone to flooding it makes sense to require them to have additional flood insurance. Does it also make sense then to require homes built in areas where there has never been a recorded instance of flooding and no conceivable mechanism for a flood to occur? My argument would conclude that homes built in areas where there is no risk of flood to carry additional insurance. Your argument, if I read it correctly, would conclude the exact opposite.

Google “Formaldehyde and cancer risk: a quantitative review of cohort studies through 2006” for the details of the occupation exposure studies.

Its conclusions are as follows: Comprehensive review of cancer in industry workers and professionals exposed to formaldehyde shows no appreciable excess risk for oral and pharyngeal, sinonasal or lung cancers. A non-significantly increased RR for nasopharyngeal cancer among industry workers is attributable to a cluster of deaths in a single plant. For brain cancer and lymphohematopoietic neoplasms there were modestly elevated risks in professionals, but not industry workers.

Ha….careful there….my family, not in a flood plane is having a heck of a time in western Iowa :o)

I hear what you are saying, I think….if the general mass of people that have everyday exposure are at little risk, it doesn’t make sense to over-regulate.  I think that is where we disagree…is that the general mass of people is at risk….you believe they are not, while I hold that they (we) are.  And, if we are aware of this risk, we can take steps to mitigate it.

I’ve spent most of the day researching articles, most point to, at minimum, a reasonable risk to moderate exposure…since there is an appreciable link, does it make sense to ignore a 20+ year span of study by the EPA?  I personally believe that even mild exposure can have very literal effects on people, especially the young and elderly. It appears to me that we - or more accurately the politicians involved - are kicking the can down the road, rather than having an honest, open debate.

Catherine Rodgers

June 15, 2011, 6:03 p.m.

Actually, on Democracy Now yesterday I learned that saying only workers are affected, is actually industry hype when they are backed into a corner. We need dangerous chemicals regulated period.

And I remember reading that embalmers actually need to use less formaldehyde these days because we are all full it. Great. Cancer is epidemic. Great.

The health care industry is a for profit business. The cancer society’s are really just a front.  There is no one looking for a cure for cancer in the traditional medical field.  There is too much money to be made off of sick people.  Healthy people are not good for business. And if you think the government has your best interests at heart then I think you shoul make up.  If this sounds upsetting then good, it should.  If people took the money they spend on health insurance and spent it on healthy food and a little research on their own as to what is good for you, doctors would have to find another job.

Becky Gillette

June 16, 2011, 8:18 a.m.

It simply is not true as stated above by Mike that formaldehyde exposure is only a problem for those exposed in occupational settings. I get a couple emails or calls a week from people whose entire families are sick from formaldehyde exposure. Many of these people are in former FEMA trailers, some are in manufactured homes, and some have been exposed simply by putting in new cabinets.

The fact is THERE ARE NOW SAFER ALTERNATIVES to formaldehyde as a binder in wood products, and we need to adopt these green chemistry solutions to reduce cancer and other illnesses from exposure to formaldehyde. You can go to Home Depot and buy formaldehyde free plywood at the same cost. Google formaldehyde free plywood for more info.

If the government did its job and properly regulated hazardous substances like formaldehyde, millions of people would have their health protected and the marketplace would shift over to the “green” products.

@ Tom

The peer reviewed literature doesn’t back the assertion that mild low level exposure as experienced by the public at large, or even moderate exposure as experienced by occupation (sans medical and mortuary workers) is responsible for any measurable health impacts.

@ Catherine Rodgers

Well, if you heard it on Democracy Now! I don’t know how to argue against such a qualified and well versed source like that.

@ Becky Gillette

MDI and PVA, the primary alternatives you are referring to, are not suitable for all applications where CH2O is currently used. And while I am sure you get contacts from many people who have become ill from or believe they have become ill from low level exposure to CH2O, the available body of scientific literature doesn’t support the conclusion that acute exposure leads to chronic morbidity.

@Mike H

Who pays you to spread this kind of crap.  If something causes cancer it’s bad even if it’s it’s just a little bit.  That’s like saying a little cancer is ok for you.  You are the leading the sheeple in the wrong direstion

@ Ray Smith

Please explain to me (and the rest of us) how something that has been demonstrated to cause cancer in a small group of people exposed from occupational hazards needs a regulator scheme to cover every man woman and child in the nation?

I thought we were all members of the “reality based community” here.

@Mike H

can you explain to me why a drug like medical cannibus which has never cause d a death ever will put you in jail.  But prescription medicine which has been proven to kill people is regulated and administered.

here is a link that might help you.  formaldehyde is mentioned at the last part of the article

@Mike H

can you explain to me why a drug like medical cannibus which has never cause d a death ever will put you in jail.  But prescription medicine which has been proven to kill people is regulated and administered.

here is a link that might help you.  formaldehyde is mentioned at the last part of the article

I don’t know how to explain that when something can kill you it should be monitored very close.

sorry for the duplicate posting not intentional

@ Ray Smith

No I cant explained why pot is illegal, but that’s not what this is about so stay focused. Thanks for the link to the anti-vaccine kook, but it didn’t help explain why a widely used substance should be broadly regulated when it has only shown to pose a risk for a very small number of occupational users.

@Mike H

I really do feel sorry for you Mike.  If you can’t see the larger picture then you need a little help.  So to follow your line of thinking,  I am more interested in helping the majority of the population,  you don’t matter.

@ Ray Smith

The larger picture … would that be the one where supposition and fearmongering replaced science? As far as “helping the majority of the population” you are doing no such thing as the majority, even the majority of those exposed on an occupational basis, isn’t exposed to CH2O in quantities large enough to cause morbidity. Or at least that’s what the science says.

Now Now mike let’s stay focused here.  You seem to be more interested in me that the topic.
I used to work at a large insurance company where we would relocate departments i.e. moving phones, network connections, electrical connections etc.  That way they could replace the carpets and the steelcase cubicals.  I would get terrible headaches and would have to stay home sick occasionally because of all the off gasing of the new materials.  SO to get to the point I had a very bad case of pshoriasis (sorry for the spelling) which cleared up a year after I left there.  We were always on our knees working on the floor close to the carpet.  I don’t care what science says.  I have my proof.  THe stuff is not good for you and should be taken off the market.

Catherine Rodgers

June 16, 2011, 1:05 p.m.

We all know that when it is said that the “science doesn’t support what is being said” really means that no one has tested the anecdotal evidence on animals, and there has been no studies of the human population (which is the better of the two). People don’t be swayed by “the science doesn’t support the evidence”. It conveniently means there have been no studies done at all.

@ Ray Smith

What you have is not proof, but anecdotal evidence. What you were exposed to could have been one of dozens of VOC’s including but not necessarily CH2O.

@Mike H

Your right mike.  Nothing to see here move along.

@ Catherine Rodgers

Had you bothered to look, you would have seen the study I referred to … a human study, not animals or bacteria, but a human epidemiological study.

@ Ray Smith

If you don’t like the answers, stop asking the questions.

Formaldehyde is irritating to tissues when it comes into direct contact with them. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde than others. The most common symptoms include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, along with increased tearing, which occurs at air concentrations of about 0.4–3 parts per million (ppm). NIOSH states that formaldehyde is immediately dangerous to life and health at 20 ppm. One large study of people with asthma found that they may be more sensitive to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde than other people; however, many studies show that they are not more sensitive. Severe pain, vomiting, coma, and possible death can occur after drinking large amounts of formaldehyde. Skin can become irritated if it comes into contact with a strong solution of formaldehyde.

To protect the public from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways to treat people who have been harmed, scientists use many tests.

You should know that one way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify such health effects as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.

Additionally, there are vigorous national and international efforts to develop alternatives to animal testing. The efforts focus on both in vitro and in silico approaches and methods. For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) in 1998. The role of NICEATM is to serve the needs of high quality, credible science by facilitating development and validation—and regulatory and public acceptance—of innovative, revised test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while strengthening protection of human health, animal health and welfare, and the environment. In Europe, similar efforts at developing alternatives to animal based testing are taking place under the aegis of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM).

Several studies of laboratory rats exposed for life to high amounts of formaldehyde in air found that the rats developed nose cancer. Some studies of humans exposed to lower amounts of formaldehyde in workplace air found more cases of cancer of the nose and throat (nasopharyngeal cancer) than expected, but other studies have not found nasopharyngeal cancer in other groups of workers exposed to formaldehyde in air. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that formaldehyde may reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen (NTP). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that formaldehyde is probably carcinogenic to humans. This determination was based on specific judgments that there is limited evidence in humans and sufficient evidence in laboratory animals that formaldehyde can cause cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen based on limited evidence in humans and sufficient evidence in laboratory animals.

And your point is .....

Geesh feel like I’m talking to a 5 year old.  Go to your room

Cutting and pasting a document you dont really understand isnt the way one make a point .. unless that point is show the world you are ignorant.

Is that your way of saying “LAST word”

I have notice that when people have lost and argument they resort to name calling, character assasination, and all other sorts of things that have nothing to do with what is actually going on.  That rock you call reality your living under is probably very small.  IT doesn’t take much to hold you down.

Well, I have notice that when people have lost and argument they resort to cutting and pasting long poorly understood text from websites, anecdotal stories of things that happened to shore up a steadily eroding argument, and insults.  That rock you call reality your living under is probably very small.  It doesn’t take much to hold you down.

that’s practically interesting and so original.  I’m hoping that in keeping up this pointless argument with you that others will see you for what you really are.

You can continue your increasing degenerate emotionally based argument and I will keep coming with the facts and context that puts them into perspective. Or you can walk away while you are behind.

I like that walk away thing, just like in the movies.  I am wondering if you can see over the top of this hole you a digging?

You see mike. I have already told you what my purpose is.  To keep you occupied so you can’t spread you myopic views anywhere else for a while.  So I figure I’m doing ok.

Ray, maybe there is something to your argument (as lacking in scientific evidence as it is) that CH2O is responsible for some pretty horrid health and mental problems. I think all those fumes you inhaled at your office must have damaged your brain something fierce.

I for one will not drink nor will I wash my hands in formaldehyde. I RV’ed around the country for years. RV parks with septic requested that you not dump this stuff in their systems. I figure if it destroys that environment it must reek havoc if it goes down the drain, and eventually into rivers, streams and on to the oceans and very likely in to our food change.

Arguing about the merits of its use is silly. Its bad stuff.

Yes, and even with all that brain damage I have managed to keep you occupied.  Doesn’t say much for you does it.

Formaldhyde is in our clothing. It preserves the colors of the fabric. Google F. in clothing. Note especially the Victoria’s Secret article. Could this be the cause of all the brest cancer?

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