On Friday, the US Department of Health and Human Services warned consumers about two commonly used compounds, listing one as a carcinogen, and the other as a potential threat.
Officials added formaldehyde, frequently found in plywood, hair salons, and mortuaries, to the government’s Report on Carcinogens, while identifying styrene, a major component in bathtubs, boats, and foam packaging materials, as a possible hazard.
Formaldehyde has been linked to increased cases of myeloid leukemia, as well as cancers in the nasal passages and upper mouth. Styrene, on the other hand, has been associated with increased risk of leukemia, lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, esophageal cancer, and white blood cell damage.
Yet, government scientists made the distinction that while formaldehyde levels in common products threaten consumers, styrene amounts remain low, only endangering workers who build materials with the compound.
“A listing in the Report on Carcinogens does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer,” said the department in Friday’s announcement. “Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure, and an individual’s susceptibility to a substance, affect whether a person will develop cancer.”
The compounds join six other newcomers to the list: aristolochic acid, in the “known to be a human carcinogen” category, and captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide, specific inhalable glass wool fibers, ortho-Nitrotoluene, and riddelliine in the “reasonably anticipated” class.
Though aristolochic acid is often used in herbal treatments for arthritis and gout, and glass wool fibers can be found in insulation, the announcement fixated on formaldehyde and styrene for their widespread contact with consumers.
“It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, of formaldehyde. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their [sic] exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.”
But consumers can limit their exposure to formaldehyde by buying pressed-wood products labeled as ULEF (ultra-low emitting formaldehyde) or NAF (no added formaldehyde), or avoiding them altogether.
Brawley also noted that for now, shoppers need not stay away from products containing styrene. The small levels found in consumer goods are generally too slight to cause cancer.
“I see no problem with Styrofoam cups,” he said in a telephone interview.
As a result of the findings, some industry leaders using formaldehyde and styrene have begun a quest to replace the carcinogens with friendlier materials. Most manufacturers, however, dispute the report, warning that the report is inconclusive and could potentially damage the economy.
“It will unfairly scare workers, plant neighbors and could have a chilling effect on the development of new products,” noted Tom Dobbins of the American Composites Manufacturers Association. “Our companies are primarily small businesses, and this could hurt jobs and local economies.”
On the other side of the spectrum, scientists are upset that industry politics have delayed the report’s release and have attempted to invalidate its conclusions.
“Industry held this report up for four years,” said Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have tried to create the impression that there was real scientific uncertainty here, but there’s not.”
She added in a blog: “The chemical industry fought the truth, the science, and the public — but, in the end our government experts came through for us, giving the public accurate information about the health risks from chemicals that are commonly found in our homes, schools, and workplaces.”
Click here for the full government report.
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