• Kevin Elliott

The EPA slowdown on dangers of formaldehyde


There is a skirmish taking place in Washington over a draft report on the acceptable levels of formaldehyde that critics say illustrates how the Trump administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is bending long-established review procedures to benefit industry.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong smelling chemical. While best known for its use in embalming fluid and most widely used in industrial resins, it's commonly used as a precursor to other chemical compounds.

Formaldehyde is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. Additionally, it's commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide and disinfectant.

The chemical's unique and versatile properties also give it broad roles in the economy, supporting about 963,000 jobs and $433 billion in sales in the United States, according to the American Chemistry Council. Formaldehyde's use in housing applications and the automotive industry make it particularly valuable to Michigan's economy. Dow Chemical, a producer of formaldehyde, is located in Midland, Michigan.

A 1997 report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found formaldehyde is normally present in both indoor and outdoor air at low levels, usually less than .03 parts per million of air. However, materials containing formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas or vapor into the air. Formaldehyde is also a byproduct in combustion, including automobiles.

Industrial workers who produce formaldehyde or formaldehyde-containing products, laboratory technicians, certain health professions and mortuary employees may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde than the general public. Exposure occurs primarily by inhaling formaldehyde gas or vapor from the air or by absorbing liquids through the skin.

The American Chemistry Council, the industry's largest lobbying and trade organization, is taking issue with the most recent assessment of the dangers of formaldehyde, claiming “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2010 draft Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment proposed risk value would set an acceptable air concentration that is thousands of times below levels that naturally occur in the environment."

The assessment, which was conducted by the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) and released in 2010, concluded formaldehyde causes respiratory cancers, leukemia and other health problems, including asthma.

"The truth is, formaldehyde is a natural part of our world and the illogical findings of IRIS are not," the 2018 publication goes on to state. "Formaldehyde is found in every living system – from plants to animals to humans – produced as part of our normal metabolic process. If a person inhales formaldehyde, the body breaks it down rapidly, just like when it is naturally produced in our bodies."

Health assessment conducted by the EPA's IRIS program are used to determine "acceptable levels" of exposure to specific chemicals. The assessments are simply findings, and don't serve as regulations themselves however, the assessments influence the EPA and other regulators to determine regulations.

But, according to some health and environmental groups, the response from the American Chemistry Council is more hot air in an effort to suppress the EPA's findings that could lead to tighter regulations on formaldehyde and open the industry up to expensive lawsuits.

Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA's draft assessment, which was released in 2010 and has since been re-assessed a second time, has already been reviewed a second time by the independent National Academy of Sciences but is being held up by the EPA due to industry pressure.

"Nancy Beck is holding it up," she said, referring to the EPA's deputy assistant administrator in the agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "She's a political appointee that didn't go through a confirmation hearing, and she was a former lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council. She went right from there as a lobbyist to heading up the toxics process at the EPA. She had been working on these issues and TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), and her office is overseeing the process."

A request from Downtown Publications to the EPA for comment or interview with Beck was not granted.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency's Office of Research and Development is currently "Developing a new approach of soliciting program input on current and future IRIS assessments to ensure IRIS assessments are focused on the highest priority needs." The EPA said the formaldehyde assessment will be included in that activity.

Kimberly White, an environmental toxicologist and senior director at the American Chemistry Council said, "Separately, it's produced for industrial uses. It's a basic building block in a lot of chemistry in automobile products, it's used as a resin and you hear about it a lot in composite materials. That's a high level picture."

A 2017 one-page publication by the council notes humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde each day and that it's a "natural by-product" from all combustion processes. The cartoonish infographic depicts everyday people exposed to formaldehyde. For instance, there is 3.95 mg/kg in coffee; 6 mg/kg in an apple; .0001 ppm in human breath; 11 mg/kg in fish; 10 ppm in car exhaust and other sources.

"Low levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables, including apples, carrots and bananas," the sheet states. "It does not accumulate in the environment or within plants and animals.”

"If you look at the EPA's 2010 draft, their value was set at .001part-per billion (ppb). If your body produces 1 (ppb), you're already three orders above that magnitude just by exhaling. That's not really reasonable," she said. "As a state regulator, say in Michigan, how do they adjust to levels that you find in the background every day.

"That's one of the things, that we want the agency to do, is do a reality check. If you're setting values that aren't realistic or make sense, then you need to re-evaluate the process for setting those values."

With the ubiquitous presence of formaldehyde everywhere we turn, one might be led to believe that formaldehyde poses no threat to human health at all. But just because a chemical can be naturally occurring or metabolized by the body in low amounts doesn't mean it can't be a threat. For instance, apple seeds contain a cyanide and sugar compound that degrades into hydrogen cyanide when metabolized. In World War II, hydrogen cyanide was used in gas chambers and called Zyklon B.

"Nobody is arguing whether it's a carcinogen. They are arguing on what kind of cancer," Sass said. "They are saying it wouldn't cause blood cancer because it doesn't get into blood. ... The industry argument is theoretical, but that fact is, you have half a dozen studies showing formaldehyde is linked to leukemia."

In reference to formaldehyde, White said the American Chemistry Council doesn't suggest that high levels of the chemical aren't harmful.

"Formaldehyde is considered a nasal carcinogen at very high doses," she said. "Those would be levels that you wouldn't find in the environment or in environmental exposures. At very high levels of exposure, scientific data supports that it is a nasal carcinogen."

An initial draft of the IRIS assessment on formaldehyde was released in 2010. The following year, the non-governmental, non-profit National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the initial assessment and severely criticized the 1,000-plus page draft assessment. Among the NAS's criticisms was that the assessment failed to support its conclusions.

"Overall, the committee found that the EPA's draft assessment wasn't prepared in a logically consistent fashion, lacks clear links to underlying conceptual framework and doesn't sufficiently document methods and criteria used to identify evidence for selecting and evaluating studies."

While the NAS review said the initial assessment didn't support the findings linking formaldehyde to leukemia and some other health problems, it did support the findings that link it to nasal cancers. Still, the IRIS program withdrew its initial assessment. A second draft assessment has been completed, but has not yet been made available to the public, making the current assessment within the EPA nearly 40 years old.

Sass said part of the problem with the initial review was that it failed to focus on science used to reach its conclusions, instead adding hundreds of pages to address industry criticisms.

"The NAS didn't challenge their conclusion, but they did hit the IRIS staff hard on their science communication," she said. "They basically said the staff failed to justify the science used in the assessment... they basically said 'you need a prewritten rational or framework, and it can't be a rebutting and selecting process.'"

The EPA's IRIS program is located in the agency's National Center for Environmental Assessment in the Office of Research and Development. The placement of the program ensures IRIS can develop impartial toxicity information independent of its use by the EPA's program and regional offices to set national standards and clean up hazardous sites.

The criticism of the IRIS program applied not only to the formaldehyde assessment, but with what was viewed as longstanding problems in the program.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency has been responding to comments about the IRIS from the NAS and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) over the past year and a half. Changes include increased transparency and implementing review changes to create a clearer evaluation of underlying science. The EPA said those changes were deemed "substantial progress" by the NAS, and that the GAO noted significant improvements in their high-risk criteria ratings.

Sass, with the NRDC, said the issues have since been addressed, with the program being praised by the NAS in a 2014 assessment.

"That was a favorable review and the NAS said they were on the right track," Sass said.

While a second IRIS assessment of formaldehyde has apparently been completed, it has yet to be released for public review. Although the assessment hasn't been made public, the delay in its release suggests to some that the reassessment supports the findings of others in the scientific community that high exposure to formaldehyde may be linked to additional cancers.

"The reason industry cares about cancer classifications is because of liability of any litigation," Sass said. "If your workers have cancer associated with a specific site, it could lead to legal liability."

In August, U.S. Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) asked Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler about the release of IRIS assessment on formaldehyde and wasn't given a clear answer.

"(Former) Administrator Pruitt committed to release the EPA's scientific report on the carcinogen formaldehyde but never did so. Will you commit to releasing this report?" Markey asked.

"I've not been briefed specifically on the IRIS formaldehyde report, but I have sat down with our IRIS staff, and what I'm trying to do is provide more certainty to that process to make sure we know how the different assessments will be used in the regulatory programs, and it's my understanding that we still have a number of steps to complete on the formaldehyde assessment," Wheeler answered.

When pressed on when the assessment will be released, Wheeler didn't answer.

"The question I have put to our IRIS staff is 'what is the purpose of the assessment at this point, and whether or not that data they have used in the assessment is still current.' I know they started that before 2010," Wheeler said. "We will release it, but I need to make sure the science in the report is still accurate.

"What I've asked is for, not just that report, but everything we are doing on the IRIS program is to make sure we know the purpose of the assessment because we have a lot of chemicals that we should and could be assessing under the IRIS program, and I want to make sure that they are being used in our regulatory process because we have other chemicals that need to be assessed, as well. That is one of the questions that I've asked our program staff."

"Pruitt committed to releasing it, and I hope that you put it at the top of your list," Markey responded. "I expect you to, and to get it released so that the public can understand what those dangers are."

Markey followed up the exchange with a tweet on August 1: "EPA Admin Andrew Wheeler gave me an unacceptable answer today when I asked him if he would release the long-overdue study on the impacts of toxic #formaldehyde. The EPA should not continue to silence science that would protect public health and immediately release this report."

In May, Markey and senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) sent a letter to the EPA asking for the formaldehyde assessment to be released. The letter followed a statement by former administrator Pruitt in January in which he indicated the report was ready to be released.

"Unfortunately, it appears that the agency may be succumbing to the pressure from industry in its attempt to delay or block the publication of the formaldehyde health assessment," the senators said in the letter. "This is exceptionally disturbing, and lends further credence to the belief, already widely held, that the EPA has been captured by industry. We urge you to ensure there are not further efforts to delay or block the publication of this assessment that has serious implications for public health."

Nicholas Schroeck, director of clinical programs and associate law professor at University of Detroit Law School, and former director of the Transnational Law Clinic at Wayne State University Law School, said because formaldehyde is used for various industrial applications and is found in our air, water, foods, land and various consumer products, the EPA regulates it through the National Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

"If the EPA found that exposure at certain levels causes leukemia or nose and throat cancers, that's big," Schroeck said. "That would mean every state would potentially have to go back and look at all of their permitting, all the way down to manufacturing, and potentially homes and businesses that are off-gassing."

Schroeck said there's also likely to be litigation stemming from the assessment if it opens new classifications of cancer linked to formaldehyde, a move that has already been made by other agencies.

Research spanning decades has linked formaldehyde to nose and throat cancer, as well as respiratory problems. However, newer research suggests that it may be linked to leukemia.

A study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is an arm of the National Institutes of Health, suggested professionals who are exposed to formaldehyde in their work, such as anatomists and embalmers, may have an increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer compared to the general populat