New formaldehyde report supports EPA’s assessment that chemical is ‘human carcinogen’

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A St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s deputy guards unoccupied FEMA trailers Tuesday, March 21, 2006. Some residents said they suffered respiratory and other health problems from high levels of formaldehyde. ( | The Times-Picayune file)
Bruce Alpert, | Times-Picayune By Bruce Alpert, | Times-Picayune
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on August 20, 2014 at 5:33 PM, updated August 20, 2014 at 5:56 PM

WASHINGTON — The ongoing debate about the risks of formaldehyde is intensifying in light of a new report by the National Academy of Sciences that said the Environmental Protection Agency’s labeling of the chemical as a “human carcinogen” is supported by research.

The report, issued earlier this month, was a reversal from the academy’s 2011 study, requested by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., which found EPA’s findings went beyond available evidence and “needs substantial revision.”

The issue generated national attention after elevated levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers were linked to a variety of respiratory ailments suffered by people who lived in them after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The 2011 National Academy report concluded that EPA’s analysis supports its conclusion that formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and create lesions in the respiratory tract and that high concentrations can lead to genetic mutations. But it said the EPA failed to support its conclusions that formaldehyde causes other cancers of the respiratory tract or leukemia.

The new report found sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in human and animal studies and “convincing relevant information” that formaldehyde induces mechanistic events associated with the development of cancer in humans.”  Based on these findings, the committee concluded that EPA can list formaldehyde  as a “human carcinogen.”

A carcinogen is a substance that is linked to causing cancer.

Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said  formaldehyde can continue to be safely used.

“We are perplexed as to why (the Academy) report differs so greatly from the 2011 (Academy) report,” which “considered the same scientific data,” said Dooley. “This reinforces the need for a comprehensive and fully integrative analysis of formaldehyde science in the U.S.”

House members requested the latest report as part of a spending bill.

Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the new report shows, contrary to industry claims, that formaldehyde “may cause cancer in humans” and “our government scientists are doing the best job possible of providing thorough and credible scientific information to the public about the health risks from chemicals.”

“Remember the temporary housing trailers that people were provided after Hurricane Katrina that later had to be evacuated because indoor air formaldehyde levels were dangerously high? That’s the problem with formaldehyde — it off-gases into the surrounding air,” Sass wrote on the NRDC website.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of scientists, established by Congress.

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