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June 20, 2011
Volume 89, Number 25
p. 11

Formaldehyde, Styrene Added To Cancer Warning List

Toxicology: Government recommends limited exposure to the industrial chemicals

Britt Erickson

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Formaldehyde fumes can be emitted from composite wood used to build houses. Shutterstock
Formaldehyde fumes can be emitted from composite wood used to build houses.

Despite intense pressure from the chemical industry, formaldehyde and styrene have been added to a government warning list of known and potentially carcinogenic compounds. Released June 10--four years late because of the opposition--the 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC), compiled by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) under the aegis of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), also adds six other substances to its list of 240 compounds.

But the listing of formaldehyde as a known carcinogen has generated the most heat, with industry claiming evidence of its carcinogenicity to be insufficient. The compound is predominantly used to make industrial resins, which are found in numerous consumer products including composite wood, pulp and paper, plastics, and synthetic fibers. It is also used as a disinfectant and antimicrobial agent.

Environmental groups applauded HHS for finally releasing the report and not caving to industry pressure. “The chemical industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail” to prevent the report from being finalized, says Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The public has a right to know about the chemical risks that are foisted upon us.”

“We are extremely disappointed that HHS has moved forward with listing formaldehyde in its 12th RoC as a known human carcinogen,” said Calvin M. Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the chemical industry trade group the American Chemistry Council, in a statement. “By doing so, HHS ignored the recently released, independent, peer-review report from the National Research Council, which strongly questioned whether the scientific evidence supports the claim of human carcinogen for leukemia.”

Likewise, a styrene industry group has called the evidence for that compound’s potential carcinogenicity “scientifically unsupportable.” Threatening legal action and continued advocacy against the NTP listing, the Styrene Information & Research Center has vowed “to get styrene removed from the RoC.”

Styrene is a building block used to make the ubiquitous chemical polystyrene, which is found in food containers, toys, automobiles, carpet backings, house paints, ink cartridges, insulation, wood polish, adhesives, and several other products. Styrene is also used to produce polyester resins for making boats, bathtubs, shower stalls, and other glass-fiber reinforced plastic products.

Although some leaching of styrene from consumer products that contain polystyrene does occur, human exposures are “probably not very large,” said John Bucher, and NTP associate director, during a June 10 press briefing.  “The evidence that we’ve used for listing styrene,” he said, “is largely from industrial situations.”

Last month, 63 members of Congress wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, urging that NTP delay the styrene listing in the report until a “thorough review can be conducted that weighs the full body of scientific evidence available to decision makers.” The lawmakers warned that thousands of workers in the U.S. styrene industry might lose their jobs as a result.

The other six substances added to the report include aristolochic acids, found in botanical products; captafol, a fungicide that is banned in the U.S.; cobalt-tungsten carbide, used in cutting and grinding tools; ortho-nitrotoluene, used in producing azo dyes; riddelliine, found in medicinal herbal products; and inhalable glass wool fibers.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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