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US adds formaldehyde to human carcinogen list

Styrene, used in Styrofoam, also is worrisome

By Gardiner Harris
New York Times / June 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The government issued warnings yesterday about two materials used daily by millions of Americans, saying that one causes cancer and the other might.

Government scientists listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen and said it is found in worrisome quantities in plywood, particle board, mortuaries, and hair salons. They also said that styrene, which is used in boats, bathtubs, and Styrofoam, may cause cancer but is generally found in low levels in consumer products whose risks are low.

Frequent and intense exposures in manufacturing plants are far more worrisome than the intermittent contact that most consumers have, but government scientists said that consumers should avoid contact with formaldehyde and styrene along with six other chemicals that were added yesterday to the government’s official Report on Carcinogens. Its release was delayed for years because of intense lobbying from the chemical industry, which disputed its findings.

John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program, which produced the report, said that the evidence of formaldehyde’s carcinogenicity was far stronger than for styrene and that consumers were more likely to be exposed to potentially dangerous quantities of formaldehyde.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned in April that a hair-care product, Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, contained unacceptable levels of formaldehyde, and salon workers have reported headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes, vomiting, and asthma attacks after using the product and other hair-straighteners.

Studies of workers like embalmers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have found increased incidences of myeloid leukemia and rare cancers of the nasal passages and upper mouth.

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, said that formaldehyde is both worrisome and inescapable.

“It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,’’ he said. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.’’

Consumers can reduce their exposure to formaldehyde by avoiding pressed-wood products or buying only those that are labeled as ULEF (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde), NAF (no-added formaldehyde), or CARB (California Air Resources Board) Phase 1 or Phase 2 compliant.

Styrene is mostly a concern for workers who build boats, car parts, bathtubs, and shower stalls. Studies of workers exposed to high levels of styrene have found increased risks of leukemia and lymphoma and genetic damage to white blood cells. There is also some evidence that styrene increases the risks of cancer of the pancreas and esophagus among styrene workers, the report found. Consumers can be exposed to styrene from the fumes of building materials, photocopiers, and tobacco smoke.

As for styrene’s presence in Styrofoam and other consumer products, Brawley likened the risk from such products to that of coffee and cellphones — uncertain and slight.

Cal Dooley, president and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents companies that make and use polystyrene and formaldehyde, rejected the report’s conclusions.

“We are extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process,’’ he said.

Some in the industry have promised to continue fighting the report and will appeal elements of its findings. But some manufacturers already have begun using alternatives to formaldehyde in their products.

This is the 12th cancer list released by the toxicology program at the National Institutes of Health, and each has been controversial. In 2000, controversy erupted over the ninth report’s listing of secondhand smoke and tanning beds. The 11th report’s listing in 2005 of naphthalene, which is used in mothballs, caused similar concern.

The report also lists aristolochic acids, found in plants and sometimes used in herbal medicines, as a known carcinogen and added to the list of probable carcinogens substances like captafol (a fungicide no longer sold in the United States), finely spun glass wool fibers (used in insulation), cobalt-tungsten carbide (used in manufacturing), riddelliine (plants eaten by cattle, horses, and sheep), and ortho-nitrotoluene (used in dyes).

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