A victory for science: EPA releases study on formaldehyde the chemical industry tried to suppress

In a victory for scientific integrity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week released a long-delayed proposed toxicological assessment of formaldehyde, a chemical widely used in building materials, cleaning products medicinal and personal care products and furnishings. His findings confirm what the body of scientific literature has long indicated – that breathing in small amounts of formaldehyde over time is associated with an increased risk of cancer.

This is the science that should have informed decisions about the production and use of formaldehyde for years. However, publication of this important assessment was stalled for four to five years due to efforts by the chemical industry to cast doubt on the scientific rigor of the EPA’s work. Additionally, industry lobby groups have worked to exert influence over the EPA, particularly under the Trump administration. UCS has called the indefinite delay in administering this formaldehyde assessment project and the failure to provide adequate resources to the science office working on it, an attack on science.

Formaldehyde poses a significant risk

The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) draft assessment found that breathing even small amounts of formaldehyde throughout a person’s lifetime is associated with an increased risk of leukemia and the development of head, neck and sinus cancer; asthma; allergies; decreased lung function; and even reproductive problems. The IRIS assessment includes a detailed explanation of its methodology and how it used a systematic review to ensure that only the highest quality studies were included in the assessment. This increased level of transparency responds directly to feedback given to IRIS on its draft formaldehyde assessment from 2010. This version represents an improvement both in terms of process and in the breadth of evidence that informs it.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, and highly volatile chemical, which means that products containing formaldehyde continue to emit the chemical while in our homes, offices, and schools. Children’s exposure to formaldehyde in these settings is of concern because they are smaller and their bodies are still developing. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, and the US Department of Health and Human Services listed it as a known human carcinogen in 2011. Without the latest assessment IRIS and the designation of formaldehyde as a human carcinogen, the EPA has not had the ability to adequately regulate it under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Public and external scientific review is essential

Now that the EPA has released its draft review, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics (NASEM) will peer review it at the same time the agency accepts public comments on the ‘study. According to the Federal Register posting, the EPA will provide all public comments to the NASEM committee for consideration during its own review and will also accept comments at a public meeting to be scheduled by NASEM.

Peer review and public input are essential steps in the EPA process that help ensure that the best science is considered and the right methods are used to ensure an independent and rigorous outcome.

Comments will be accepted until June 13.

We can’t let the formaldehyde debacle happen again

As Michal Freedhoff, the deputy administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, wrote in a 2021 memo to staff: “It’s a new day, on the communication, trust, transparency and the importance of science in our regulatory decision-making process. ”

There has been a strong commitment to scientific integrity at the EPA under the leadership of EPA Administrator Michael Regan, and the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) is currently working on a framework for agencies to follow when implementing and enforcing scientific integrity policies.

We know very well that when decision-makers compromise on science for financial or political reasons, we all lose. We need to give scientific integrity the attention it deserves so that we can create a strong infrastructure that persists despite changes in presidential administrations.

We urge Congress to pass the Scientific Integrity Act so that we never have another formaldehyde (or silica or PFBS or TCE…chemicals list goes on…) debacle to fix and the public can trust that the agencies charged with using the best available scientific evidence to protect them actually do so.

By Genna Reed, Senior Analyst, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientist

Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.

Featured image by Ben Mills — own work, public domain


 

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