Energy & Environment

Highly anticipated EPA draft says formaldehyde causes cancer

Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde — a common industrial chemical — can cause multiple cancers involving the head, neck and blood, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft assessment released Thursday.

The agency’s latest draft links formaldehyde inhalation to nasopharyngeal cancer, impacting the head and neck; sinonasal cancer, involving the nasal cavity or sinuses; and myeloid leukemia, which impacts bone marrow and blood cells.

The draft goes further than a previous agency determination, which stated the substance was a “probable human carcinogen.”

Formaldehyde can be found in wood products, building materials, housing insulation and household products like glues, permanent press fabrics and paints.

Thursday’s draft release comes after reports that the EPA under the prior Trump administration had suppressed the finding that formaldehyde causes leukemia

Politico reported in 2018 that top advisers to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt were delaying the report’s release as part of an effort to undermine the EPA’s research on the risks posed by toxic chemicals. At the time, the agency denied that the findings were being held up. 

Allegations surrounding the agency’s handling of formaldehyde and other chemicals spurred House subpoenas in 2019

This is not the first time that the EPA has described formaldehyde in a draft as carcinogenic. That finding was previously revealed in a 2010 rendition of the EPA’s assessment, which underwent review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine but was ultimately never finalized.

If finalized, the finding released Thursday is expected to enable the EPA to pursue more stringent controls on the substance. For now, the public has 60 days to weigh in on the draft, which was issued through the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).

“I’m really pleased to see this IRIS assessment of formaldehyde — we’ve known formaldehyde is a human carcinogen for years,” Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told The Hill.  

“Hopefully, this will finally lead to better regulation,” Birnbaum added.

Bob Sussman, who served as the EPA’s senior policy counsel and deputy administrator in the Obama and Clinton administrations, respectively, also said that if the finding is finalized it is expected to eventually lead to more controls of formaldehyde.

“If that stands up during peer review by the National Academy of Sciences, and if EPA then uses the assessment for its risk evaluation under [the Toxics Substances Control Act], EPA will be on a road to impose additional regulation of formaldehyde. It will not happen right away, but that will be where everything points,” he said. 

The EPA is not the only agency to outline carcinogenic impacts of formaldehyde. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, said formaldehyde was a known carcinogen.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered formaldehyde to be a carcinogen since 2006.

The EPA said that its finding was based on observations of increased risk of the cancers in groups with workplace exposure to the substance. 

The assessment also explored potential noncancer health effects of formaldehyde inhalation, including the potential impacts on reproductive and developmental health.

The EPA said studies have shown moderate evidence of increases in both the length of time it takes exposed individuals to become pregnant and certain types of miscarriages. Two pregnancy studies, meanwhile, identified decreased birth weight and head circumference in newborns. 

The assessment likewise found reproductive impacts in male subjects, including one finding that showed lower sperm motility, as well as eventual birth defects in their offspring. 

The assessment also found moderate evidence that the inhalation of this toxin likely causes an increased risk of both allergic conditions and asthma symptoms, and decreased control of asthma symptoms. 

Moderate human evidence showed that long-term inhalation of formaldehyde likely reduces pulmonary function, but evidence was inadequate to determine whether short- or medium-term exposure could have similar impacts, the EPA stated.

Evaluating the effects of formaldehyde on the respiratory tract more broadly, authors found that inhalation of the toxin causes certain pre-cancerous respiratory disorders. They also noted formaldehyde’s propensity to cause sensory irritation in humans, given appropriate exposure circumstances. 

In response to the EPA’s draft, the American Chemistry Council trade group said it “strongly objects to this decision,” stressing that the  release “follows several unheeded calls by industry and lawmakers to address clear process deficiencies” — such as transparency issues, bias and other “irregularities.”

“We are disappointed that, despite our repeated requests for EPA to address these concerns prior to releasing its draft, the agency has decided to move forward without taking the steps necessary to ensure the assessment is scientifically-sound and worthy of public confidence,” Kimberly Wise White, the American Chemistry Council’s vice president of regulatory & scientific affairs, said in a statement.

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