Journalism in the Public Interest

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


Julia Koch and David Koch attend the opening night celebration of the New York City Ballet at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center on November 25, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

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. 

Good one, Ms. Wang. Hold this fat-cat’s feet to the fire, make ‘em squirm.
Excellent work!  Bring on more of it….

Luisa Rodriguez

Aug. 24, 2010, 3:52 a.m.

Kudos to you! Great job. May God Bless you.
More power.

Steve Earnhart

Aug. 24, 2010, 4:15 p.m.

First, Ms. Wang, my sincere thanks for your SUPERB journalistic effort to expose David Koch and Koch Industries as the “for profit” terrorists which they are. And to have effectively tied Vitter (R) and Inhofe (R) to this deadly man by virtue of campaign donations made to them by Koch Industries was brilliant. Power to the people. Right On! And also, yes, hold his feet to the fire….if he catches ablaze and it spreads to his business and Vitter and Inhofe and the rest of the Amerikan death machine, well, oops.

There is so much that New Yorker article covers… most of it too scary for words… but there it is.

Koch Industries

Aug. 25, 2010, 8:22 a.m.

Koch Industries submitted extensive facts <> and background information to the magazine for this article, but this did not change the publication’s negative, unbalanced tone and agenda. The story dredges up issues resolved long ago and mischaracterizes our business philosophy <>  and principles, our practices and performance record, and the education efforts and policies we support. Accurate information on many of the issues from this and other recent media and Internet discussion items can be found at

I guess anythings cheaper than actually changing to ethical business practices…

Antoinette Bonsignore

Aug. 25, 2010, 11:16 a.m.

I find it shocking that the Director for the National Cancer Institute was unaware that one of its own advisory board members has been working against NCI’s efforts to protect the public. Since Mr. Koch has a pecuniary interest to keep formaldehyde from being regulated by the EPA, I would hope that such a conflict of interest would disqualify him from his further participation as a NCI advisory board member.

Erich Riesenberg

Aug. 25, 2010, 6:32 p.m.

Queer that Koch doesn’t explain why it felt it was okay to withhold the information from the NCI.

Ms. Wang, thank you so much for exposing the Koch Brothers for what they are -  pathetic representations of homo sapiens - or, just hairless apes.

so the P.R. flack doesn’t like the “negative” tone and seeks to question your fairness and professionalism? I guess mudslinging is what you have left when the facts are stacked against you.
Do not listen to the defensive gibberish. Keep on reporting, fairly. We love it!

Anyone who doubts that the VRWC exists needs to read Jane Mayer’s remarkable article in the August 30 edition of the New Yorker. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important and unreported stories of our lifetime. It is the story of the Standard Oil of our day, the why and how of hate and how the Koch Creature, the Tea Party, is forcing the Republican Party to the extreme right in order to serve their own personal and heavily diseased world views.

Thank-you for looking under those rocks! And thank-you, Jane Mayer and The New Yorker magazine.

Are readers aware of the extent to which formaldehyde is consumed in their lives? More than outgassing plywood, it’s in common laundry detergents, clothing, lotions, and even baby shampoo. Amazing how Koch industries are so much a part of our daily lives!

Woops, I better buy my IKEA furniture quick, before formaldehyde is blacklisted!

Commenting is not available in this section entry.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories