Regulations Slow in Coming

Formaldehyde Should Have Been Regulated Ages Ago, But Political Interests Prevail
In June of this year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) updated its list of “known carcinogens” to include formaldehyde, a chemical that has been linked to cancer for decades. The reclassification of formaldehyde follows the completion and subsequent release of a series of reports by the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) asserting the chemical’s role in leukemia, as well as in respiratory problems and short-term side-effects.

But the 2009 findings only add to the mountain of evidence that has been building since the EPA’s first attempt to reclassify formaldehyde’s carcinogen status in 1998. Exposure to even small amounts of formaldehyde has been linked to skin and eye irritation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness and asthma. Even more disturbing, formaldehyde is commonly found in hair and other beauty products, soaps and shampoos, synthetic fabrics and adhesives and building materials such as plywood. E Magazine reported on the presence of the chemical in Brazilian Blowout products, as well as the failure of the company to list it in “ingredients” labels—even the labels of some products with over 4% formaldehyde content (far over the 0.1% legal minimum for inclusion in labeling).

So it may seem strange to many Americans, especially those who have suffered from formaldehyde exposure, that it took the HHS over 20 years to reclassify formaldehyde as a “known” rather than a “probable” carcinogen, eleven of which were spent on a lengthy and much-delayed update to EPA assessments of the chemical’s health effects. Strange that it has taken even longer for the EPA to finally begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and even that has hit several snags. Strange, that is, until one factors in how the implementation of environmental programs, even ones that have been put in place by law, is often at the mercy of individual members of the U.S. Senate.

In 2004 Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahama) persuaded the EPA to delay its revision of the formaldehyde health assessment, citing a need for a more “robust set of findings” from the National Cancer Institute despite their discovery of a link between formaldehyde and leukemia. One of Inhofe’s largest campaign contributors was Kotch Industries, a large chemical manufacturer. The 2009 IRIS reports were the answer to Inhofe’s request, and they solidified the formaldehyde-leukemia link. But Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana), from a state where, according to ProPublica, “thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims say they suffered respiratory problems after being housed in government trailers contaminated with formaldehyde,” halted any action on those findings by blocking the nomination of a key EPA official until the agency agreed to yet another review of the health assessment. Vitter had received a large campaign donation from, and was lobbied by, an industry trade group called the Formaldehyde Council that worries reclassifying the chemical as a carcinogen will lead to more regulation of its use. After Vitter’s success at delay, Formaldehyde Council lobbyist Charles Grizzle threw the Senator an expensive fundraising party.

Even with the recent formaldehyde reclassification, however, regulation isn’t assured. As ProPublica reports, though the EPA’s “assessments are the country’s gold standard for how dangerous a chemical is,” stricter rules have “been stalled repeatedly by the chemical manufacturing industry” through their allies in Congress.

The strategies of unilaterally blocking nominees for key regulatory positions and forcing repeated reviews of scientifically accepted data in the hope that they will eventually yield a different result have proven to be very effective tools in delaying and crippling federal efforts to tackle environmental issues, even when the issues in question have direct effects on human health. Our country’s continual failure to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, hinges somewhat on the death of cap and trade in the Senate and the impossibility of getting passionate environmentalists past this same body in the nomination process.

Nominees certainly should not get a free pass, regardless of what their views are or how many Americans agree with them. And the strictness of government regulation, even with regards to environmental or health concerns, is often far less valuable than its intelligence and effectiveness. But we now face a resistance to addressing seemingly obvious threats to the nation’s health and environment entrenched in business interests and the consolidation of political power, not scientific fact. For the sake of all those chronically, and unknowingly, exposed to dangerous toxins, one can only hope that HHS and EPA efforts—bolstered by the attention of environmentally conscious voters—prevail sooner rather than later.