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Unrecognized Dangers of Formaldehyde

National Toxicology Program Reports classified formaldehyde as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans, and sufficient evidence in experimental animals.
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A December 10, 2010 a two page article in The New York Times, "When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes," stated that "formaldehyde is commonly found in a broad range of consumer products." These include sheets, pillow cases and drapes, besides "personal care products like shampoos, lotions and eye shadows." It was stated in this article that "most of the 180 items tested, largely clothes and bed linens, had low or undetectable levels of formaldehyde that met voluntary industry guidelines." Most consumers will probably never have a problem with exposure to formaldehyde," since such low levels "are not likely to irritate most people," other than those wearing wrinkle-resistant clothing. "The U.S. does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of this chemical on labels."

On March 5, 2008, Senators Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown and Mary Landrieu introduced an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reform bill "that would help protect Americans from dangerous levels of formaldehyde in textiles including clothing." The Senators referred to a 1997 CPSC report on formaldehyde, which admitted that "it causes cancer in tests on laboratory animals, and may cause cancer in humans." Accordingly, the senators requested the CPSC to "regulate and test formaldehyde in textiles and protect consumers from this poison."

In August 2010, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report warned that "a small proportion of the U.S. population does have allergic reactions to formaldehyde resins on their clothes." However, the GAO made no recommendations for any regulatory action.

It is surprising that many people are unaware of the longstanding scientific evidence on the carcinogenicity of formaldehyde. However, this had been detailed in five National Toxicology Program Reports on Carcinogens from 1981 to 2004. These classified formaldehyde as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans, and sufficient evidence in experimental animals. This evidence was confirmed in a series of reports by the prestigious International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Its 2006 and 2010 reports explicitly warn that formaldehyde is "a known cause of leukemia in experimental animals -- and nasal cancer" in humans.

"Strong" evidence of the nasal cancer risk was also cited in the May 2010 President's Cancer Panel report, "Environmental Cancer Risk: What Can We Do Now?" Nevertheless, and in spite of this explicit evidence, a September 2010 Government Accountability Office report attempted to trivialize the cancer risks of formaldehyde on the alleged grounds that exposure levels are low or "non-detectable."

Of further concern, occupational exposure to formaldehyde has been associated with breast cancer deaths in a 1995 National Cancer Institute report, while environmental exposure has been associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer in a 2005 University of Texas report.

None of the dermatologists quoted in The New York Times appear aware of longstanding evidence that most cosmetics and personal care products, commonly used daily by most women, besides on their infants and children, and to a lesser extent men, contain up to eight ingredients which are precursors of formaldehyde. These include diazolidinyl urea, metheneamine and quaterniums, each of which readily breaks down on the skin to release formaldehyde. This is then readily absorbed through the skin, and poses unknowing risks of cancer to the majority of the U.S. population.

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; and a former President of the Rachel Carson Trust. His awards include the 1998 Right Livelihood Award and the 2005 Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medal for International Contributions to Cancer Prevention. Dr. Epstein has authored 270 scientific articles and 20 books on the causes, prevention and politics of cancer. These include "The Legislation of Product Safety" (1974, MIT Press; the groundbreaking "The Politics of Cancer" (1979, Anchor Press/Doubleday); "Hazardous Waste in America" (1982, Sierra Club Books); "The Breast Cancer Prevention Program" (1997, Macmillan); "The Politics of Cancer Revisited" (1998,East Ridge Press); "What's In Your Milk?" (2006, Trafford Publishing); and "Healthy Beauty" (2010, Benbella Books).

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
Professor emeritus Environmental & Occupational Medicine
University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health
Chicago, Illinois