The New York Times’ latest diatribe against formaldehyde brings to light an important consequence of flawed chemical assessments: what the federal government gets wrong, the media perpetuates, leaving consumers with more questions than answers about the safety of everyday chemicals.
Independent experts and Congress raise concerns
In his latest column, Nick Kristof writes off the controversy surrounding the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Report on Carcinogens (RoC) produced by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as simply an effort by industry to suppress the scientific consensus around the decision to list formaldehyde as a known carcinogen.
Despite what Kristof would have his readers believe, the concern regarding the science NTP used to classify formaldehyde as a known carcinogen comes not just from industry, but also from the nation’s premier advisory body on science, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Where did government go wrong?
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical that is created in our bodies and contained in human breath. The World Health Organization indicates that ordinary levels of formaldehyde to which most people are exposed pose little to no health risk.
Despite that fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to set a cancer risk value so low for formaldehyde that even human breath would be considered a carcinogen. And as it turns out, EPA’s risk value was based on an assessment that the NAS determined to be scientifically unsound.
Specifically, the NAS said EPA’s assessment “was not prepared in a logically consistent fashion, lacks clear links to an underlying conceptual framework, and does not sufficiently document methods and criteria used to identify evidence for selection and evaluating studies.”
A few weeks after the NAS concluded that EPA had failed to scientifically justify its position that formaldehyde causes specific types of leukemia, the 12th RoC made the same mistake as EPA, asserting that studies in humans have shown that formaldehyde causes myeloid leukemia.
As ACC explained in a letter to Congress, this chain reaction was flawed from the start, and brought more harm than good to consumers and businesses alike:
By failing to sufficiently reflect the conclusions of NAS, and by producing a contradictory report, the 12th RoC has created the potential for public confusion and alarm as well as economic harm to the 600,000 Americans employed in industries that depend on the production and use of formaldehyde, all without adequate scientific basis.
Bipartisan effort to restore scientific integrity
To restore the scientific integrity of chemical assessment programs, Congress approved bipartisan legislation, signed by President Obama, to have the National Academy of Sciences conduct a scientific peer review of certain determinations of the 12th RoC and the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Even Kristof admitted that “it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the Report on Carcinogens.”
Rather than continue to produce flawed reports, the NAS review should be completed and improvements made before future RoC evaluations are published. However, while EPA is on board with the NAS review, NIEHS has delayed the initiation of that review by several months.
It is important to understand that ACC supports independent evaluations that are based on all the facts and best available information to help promote the safe use of chemicals.
NIEHS should welcome external peer reviews to ensure that RoC determinations are based on a credible and objective evaluation of the science. That way, American consumers, workers, retailers and manufacturers can have confidence that the government’s chemical evaluations are accurate and credible.