Long-term exposures to small amounts of formaldehyde increase the risk of rare head and neck tumors, leukemia, and other threats to health, the EPA said in an updated analysis released Thursday.
If finalized, the information will be used by the Environmental Protection Agency to make cleanup, air emissions limits, and other decisions. The agency’s chemicals office, for example, already is analyzing the risks of formaldehyde to decide if its production and use in commerce is so risky that regulations are needed. State and local regulators also use EPA’s information.
The final document also can be referenced as a source of credible information in toxic tort litigation.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s findings first will undergo scientific review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The agency will accept public comment through June 13.
Formaldehyde is a hazardous air pollutant, and its use in many different products makes it common in indoor and outdoor air, contributing to widespread human exposures, according to the EPA.
The agency’s new analysis updates a 2010 draft that scientific advisers, legislators, and chemical manufacturers sharply criticized in 2011.
In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, objected to the EPA releasing its analysis. The group said the document’s development was flawed and staff at the National Academies may have biases that would affect what’s supposed to be an independent, scientific critique.
The tens of millions of dollars that industry has spent researching formaldehyde for decades supports the safety of products made with it, the council said.
By contrast, Tracey Woodruff, reproductive sciences professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said the EPA rightly flagged many potential health problems beyond cancer, which experts have long said formaldehyde can cause. The mathematical formula the agency estimated to reflect formaldehyde’s carcinogenicity underestimates how potent a carcinogen it is, she said.
Production, Uses, Problems
The chemical is used to make thousands of products and other chemicals used for adhesives, paints, insulation, plywood, dishwashing liquids, permanent press fabrics, paper products, medicines, and other goods. It’s produced naturally through combustion and in human metabolism.
The revised report finds formaldehyde can cause some of the same cancers and other problems as the agency reported in 2010 and which health agencies also have identified. But EPA’s latest analysis concludes the risk of these problems can occur at doses smaller than what the agency reported in 2010.
New technologies that can measure smaller doses of formaldehyde and studies that show health effects at those concentrations explain that change, said Samantha Jones, an associate director in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, which prepares these health assessments.
The draft assessment finds that breathing small amounts of formaldehyde for a lifetime increases the risk of tumors in the the head, neck, and sinuses as well as leukemia.
Inhaling formaldehyde increases the chance of other health problems including decreased pulmonary function, asthma, and allergies, the EPA said. It also can make it take longer for women to become pregnant and cause spontaneous abortion, according to the assessment.
The draft conclusions are based on a totally new analysis of scientific studies about the chemical including research published since 2010, Jones said.
The agency also—in a change from 2010—used a systematic approach to identifying studies that might offer insights, evaluating them to decide whether they offered useful information, describing their strengths and limitations, and integrating that information to get a total picture of what it reveals about formaldehyde, she said. The goal is to make it easier for readers to understand how the EPA reached its conclusions, she said.
The National Academies’ blistering rebuke of the EPA’s previous draft criticized the EPA for failing to describe the rationale behind its analytic choices and failing to sufficiently support its conclusions.
That report—combined with pressure from some Republican legislators and chemical manufacturers—triggered multiple reinventions of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program that prepares these documents.
The Trump administration drained staff and resources from the EPA research office that prepares these chemical health assessments, and removed the formaldehyde assessment from the research office’s responsibilities, saying the chemicals office would do a different type of analysis.
That decision was overturned soon after the Biden administration began.
The agencies’ health assessments are just one piece of the regulatory puzzle. They provide information that regulators use to decide whether a particular situation poses enough concern to warrant some type of action to protect people’s health and make sure the air, water, and soil are clean, Jones said.