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By Ben Mills — own work, public domain.

Policy & Politics

A Win for Science: EPA Releases Formaldehyde Study the Chemical Industry Tried to Suppress

The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) draft assessment found that breathing even small quantities 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 issues.

In a victory for scientific integrity, this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-delayed draft toxicological assessment on formaldehyde, a chemical widely used in building materials, medicinal and personal care products, and furnishings. Its conclusions affirm what the body of scientific literature has pointed to for a long time — that breathing just small amounts of formaldehyde over time is associated with an increased cancer risk.

This is science that should have been informing decisions on the production and use of formaldehyde for years. However, the release of this important assessment was stalled for four to five years because of the chemical industry’s efforts to cast doubt on the scientific rigor of the EPA’s work. Additionally, industry lobbying groups worked to wield their influence over the EPA, especially during the Trump administration. UCS named the administration’s indefinite delay of this draft formaldehyde assessment, and failure to adequately resource the science office working on it, as an attack on science.

Formaldehyde poses a significant risk

The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) draft assessment found that breathing even small quantities 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 issues. The IRIS assessment includes an in-depth explanation of its methodology and how it employed systematic review to ensure that only the most high-quality studies were included in the assessment. This enhanced level of transparency directly responds to feedback given to IRIS on its 2010 draft formaldehyde assessment. This version represents an improvement both in terms of process and in the breadth of evidence informing it.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical and is highly volatile, which means that products containing formaldehyde continue to emit the chemical while they are in our homes, offices, and schools. Children’s exposure to formaldehyde in these settings is concerning 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 is as a known human carcinogen in 2011. Without the latest IRIS assessment and 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 are vital

Now that EPA has released its draft review, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics (NASEM) will peer review it at the same time that 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 their own review and will also accept comments during a public meeting that will be scheduled by NASEM.

Peer review and public input are vital steps in the EPA’s process that help ensure the best science is considered and the right methods were utilized to ensure an independent and rigorous output.

Comments will be accepted until June 13.

We can’t let the formaldehyde debacle happen again

As Michal Freedhoff, the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Assistant Administrator, wrote in a 2021 memo to staff: “This is a new day, about communication, trust, transparency and the importance of science in our regulatory decision-making process.”

There has been a strong commitment to scientific integrity at EPA under EPA administrator Michael Regan’s leadership, and the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) is currently working on a framework for agencies to follow as they implement and enforce scientific integrity policies.

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

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

By Genna Reed, senior analyst, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientist

Originally published by Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.

Featured image by Ben Mills — own work, public domain

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