By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
The chemical industry has once again staved off federal action that would protect public health, as the EPA announced last week that it would be delaying compliance dates for the long-awaited formaldehyde emission standards for composite wood products—standards that were finalized in December 2016. This is the latest move brought to you by an industry with a long history of attacking science and an administration willing to do its bidding.
It’s no surprise that industry employs tactics like manufacturing doubt, attacking scientists, and influencing policymakers in a calculated effort to delay or halt science-based safeguards. Under the Trump administration, we have already seen a host of important policies rooted in strong science rolled back or delayed, including stronger beryllium, silica, ozone, and methane standards, stream protection requirements for mining operations, vehicle fuel economy standards, coal plant wastewater standards, risk management program amendments, and mercury and air toxics standards.
Last week, The New York Times reported on the way in which Administrator Scott Pruitt’s EPA has loosened its regulatory grip on the business community, and especially the oil and gas industry with which Pruitt has longstanding financial ties. The President of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of oil and gas companies, told the NYT, “We are so used to not being able to move an agenda forward that it has been very surprising how quickly things have changed.”
But what does it mean for us when industry moves its agenda forward—especially when that agenda involves stopping the creation of evidence-based limits for chemicals, proven unsafe, that will make their way into our homes or drinking water?
Formaldehyde health risks and why emission standards matter
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical widely used in building materials, medicinal and personal care products, and furnishings. Fumes from these products can be harmful to human health, especially when they accumulate indoors at high concentrations. Acute exposure can lead to nausea, headaches, and eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, even asthma exacerbation. Chronic exposure has been linked to cancers in humans, including cancers of the nose and throat, lymphomas, and leukemia. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed it is as a known human carcinogen in 2011.
Health impacts have been understood since the 1980s, and yet over thirty years later, there are no federal restrictions on formaldehyde emissions in the home. Without standards in place, public health is at risk. Back in 2005, the cheaply constructed emergency trailers that housed Hurricane Katrina refugees were found to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde, earning them the “toxic trailers” nickname, while inhabitants already dealing with displacement in the midst of an environmental disaster suffered from respiratory problems, burning eyes, and other ailments. Without controls on formaldehyde emissions, these trailers have been resold and some were even used as temporary housing for workers cleaning up the BP oil spill in the gulf in 2010. Wood products used to build and remodel homes across the country can still contain formaldehyde at potentially unsafe levels.
Chemical industry continues to sow doubt about established formaldehyde risks
The trade organization representing chemical companies including the makers of formaldehyde, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), worked to downplay the risks of the chemical and to delay and otherwise thwart the formaldehyde emissions rule as it was first being proposed and finalized by the EPA. The ACC created a website that touts the environmental benefits of formaldehyde, casts doubt on established health studies linking exposure to a range of ailments, and assures consumers that voluntary industry standards were strong enough to protect them. The ACC also persuaded Congress to commission the National Academies of Science to reevaluate EPA science on formaldehyde, resulting in a delay in the process lasting 3 years and reaching the same conclusion that formaldehyde should be listed as “known to be a human carcinogen.”
The ACC even got involved with White House-level review. In 2012, the White House Office of Management and Budget meeting record shows that it had at least five meetings with industry executives, their lobbyists, and ACC-financed lawmakers (like Senator Vitter), asking them to halt the EPA proposal, which apparently worked. After OMB-review, the EPA deleted from its cost-benefit analysis the benefits of reduced health ailments like asthma and fertility issues that a formaldehyde standard would have prevented, dropping the benefits from $278 million to $48 million annually.
The formaldehyde emissions rule was issued by the EPA in December 2016, and the ACC has continued to deny the science used by the EPA and to lobby the EPA and Congress on the issue. The ACC spent nearly $1.5 million lobbying agencies and Congress on a host of issues in just the first quarter of 2017 (January to March), including on formaldehyde, hexavalent chromium, the nomination of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the HONEST Act, the Regulatory Accountability Act, Risk Management Program amendments, and even FY 2018 appropriations for the EPA.
Just this month, a study was issued that was funded by the Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives (FCRI), a nonprofit organization established by the ACC. According to its financial filings the nonprofit works to “address uncertainties and answer questions on health and environmental issues,” taking on projects that “will furnish crucial information, peer-reviewed scientific research, expert panels, and workshops” to inform policy. FCRI granted a total of $425,294 of its revenue (which comes entirely from ACC) to study formaldehyde in 2012 and $425,114 to Environ International Corporation (now Ramboll Environ) and other consulting firms and research institutions to reevaluate formaldehyde data in 2014. Environ International has been called a “hired gun” by former OSHA administrator David Michaels, and the firm has been commissioned by several corporations to contribute to the scientific literature, including notorious tobacco company R.J. Reynolds (now Reynolds American Incorporated Services Company) and the Industrial Health Foundation (a former trade organization for industrial facilities), conducting studies with conclusions that downplayed the risks of menthol cigarettes and hexavalent chromium.
This FCRI issued grants led to several studies that helped to sow uncertainty about the potential of long-term exposure to formaldehyde to cause myeloid leukemia. A 2013 study by Environ authors funded by the FCRI and Momentive Special Chemicals Inc. (now Hexion Specialty Chemicals, Inc.), a formaldehyde-producing chemical company, used FOIA-obtained data to refute findings suggesting a link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia. Earlier this month, the ACC touted another FCRI-funded study with the headline “new study challenges formaldehyde cancer findings,” after the study built upon its 2013 work and concluded that there was no causal association between formaldehyde and leukemia, of course not mentioning the very clear conflict of interest at hand. The ACC has used this study to urge the EPA not to characterize formaldehyde as linked to leukemia development.
For years now, no matter how strong the scientific consensus around an issue is, the ACC has continuously worked to obscure scientific findings and obstruct policies that are designed to protect public health and safety, all to save chemical companies time and money.
Lives depend on science-based protections
For people like Becky Gillette, this rule’s enforcement cannot come soon enough. She told the New York Times, “People think that just because Congress passed the legislation five years ago, the problem has been fixed,” said Becky Gillette, a Mississippi resident affected by Hurricane Katrina who was one of the first people to notice that the FEMA trailers were causing health problems. “Real people’s faces and names come up in front of me when I think of the thousands of people who could get sick if this rule is not done right.”
The EPA’s final formaldehyde emissions rule estimates that 132 million individuals will be living in housing units where composite wood products have been installed within the past 11 years. Considering that population, the implementation of this rule will help prevent 26 to 64 nasopharyngeal cancer cases and 92,218 to 604,155 cases of eye irritation annually. These counts don’t even take into consideration other health ailments and types of cancer. A delay of just three months in implementation could mean the difference between cancer diagnoses and clean bills of health for at least eight Americans with faces and names.
There’s still a chance to tell EPA to leave the compliance dates alone and move forward with the rule. The EPA is accepting comments on its decision until June 8.
For more on the American Chemistry Council’s history of fighting policies that regulate chemicals produced by its member companies (think BPA, silica, and flame retardants), even when scientific evidence points to adverse health or environmental impacts, check out our 2015 report Bad Chemistry: How the Chemical Industry’s Trade Association Undermines the Policies that Protect Us.