After years of delay due to intense pressure from the chemical industry, the government finally added formaldehyde and styrene, two of the worlds mostly widely used chemicals, to its list of known and probable carcinogens this month.
Formaldehyde is widely used in plywood, particleboard, mortuaries and hair salons. Styrene is found in styrofoam containers and is widely used in boat manufacturing.
Government scientists said that while frequent and intense exposures in manufacturing plants was much more worrisome than intermittent contact that most consumers have, but consumers should nevertheless still avoid contact with formaldehyde and styrene, which were added along with six other chemicals to the government’s official Report on Carcinogens.
The chemical and manufacturing industries have long suspected that the latest report would warn about formaldehyde and styrene and industry groups have fought the process behind its release ever since. As a result of industry pressure, the government added numerous public comment periods to the process. Even after the report was written, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services delayed the report’s release for months in order to cope with industry complaints.
“Industry held this report up for four years,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have tried to create the impression that there was real scientific uncertainty here, but there’s not.”
Studies of workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, such as embalmers, have found increased incidences of myeloid leukemia and rare cancers of the nasal passages and upper mouth. Studies of workers exposed to high levels of styrene have found increased risks of leukemia and lymphoma as well as genetic damage to white blood cells. The report also found that there is some evidence that styrene increases the risks of cancer of the pancreas and esophagus among styrene workers. Consumers can be exposed to styrene from the fumes of building materials, photocopiers and tobacco smoke.
Though the report downplayed the risks associated with styrene, it is notable that hundreds of millions of styrofoam food, beverage and other containers contain styrene and the styrofoam particles can easily be dislodged with metal utensils as well as hard plastic utensils. In addition, consumers frequently re-heat food and beverages in styrofoam containers, including cups and disposable plates and the process can leach dangerous styrene into the food and beverages.
The American Cancer Society (ACS), whose ties to the chemical industries have been well documented, conceded that formadehyde problematic, but attempted to downplay the dangers of styrene. According to Chief ACS medical officer Dr. Otis Brawley formaldehyde is “worrisome but inescapable.”
“It’s the smell in new houses, and its in cosmetics like nail polish,” he said. According to Brawley, “all a reasonable person can do is manage their exposure and decrease it to as little as possible.”
As for styrene’s presence in styrofoam, plastic utensils and other consumer products, Brawley said the risk was uncertain and slight – the same Brawley said is true of cell phones.
The new report also lists aristolochic acids as a known carcinogen the fungicide captafol, finely spun glass wool fibers used in insulation, cobalt-tungsten carbide, riddelliine (found in plants eaten by horses, cows and sheep) and ortho-nitrotoluene (used in dyes) as probable carcingogens.
To see more on how the chemical industry and other cancer causing industries have diverted and hidden attention from their cancer causing compounds, see the series beginning with these two articles:
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