EPA officials appear to be suppressing an important report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde, a common chemical in many household products.
What happened: Top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appear to be suppressing an important and highly anticipated report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde, a common chemical that many people are exposed to from common household products.
Why it matters: When a scientific report on the health effects of a common chemical is being suppressed, it means that scientific data that is vital to the public’s health and well-being is being buried. Federal scientists need to be free from the threat of censorship and delay tactics to publish reports of the highest quality. These reports can form the basis of regulatory policy that protects all of us from exposure to harmful chemicals.
It is usually difficult to prove if the release of a scientific report is being intentionally delayed by government officials. Federal science, like all science, is a collaborative process that often requires a lot of lengthy back and forth discussion to produce the best scientific products. However, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a report assessing the health risks associated with formaldehyde, written by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) team, is being suppressed for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
The report is a draft risk assessment on the potential health hazards associated with formaldehyde, a common chemical found throughout the home. Household products that contain formaldehyde include wood products (particle board, plywood and fiberboard), glues, permanent-press fabrics, paper product coatings, and some insulation materials. Formaldehyde in these materials can vaporize, and when such fumes are inhaled over the long term this can lead to an increased cancer risk. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
According to a Congressional review, the formaldehyde report was finished by scientists in the fall of 2017; some sources at the EPA say the report was finished even earlier, in January 2017. Currently, the report is stuck in agency review, where a report is reviewed internally by the agency before it can be cleared for review outside the agency. This process normally takes 60-90 days, but for the formaldehyde report the review has been going on for 1 or 1½ years, with no end in sight. During a congressional hearing in January 2018, then-Administrator Pruitt was asked about the formaldehyde report, to which Pruitt replied that he would “commit to looking into” the matter and stated that he would provide a time “when we can release it.” The EPA failed to follow up on this promise, despite Senator Markey’s staff requesting the information every 2-3 weeks since. In August 2018, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler erroneously implied during Congressional testimony that the report was being held up in order to check scientific accuracy, saying, “I am sure we will release it, but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate.” Troublingly, Wheeler worked for Senator Inhofe (R-OK) in 2004, when Senator Inhofe attempted to delay an earlier iteration of the formaldehyde assessment.
Top officials at the EPA seem to be intentionally delaying the release of the report as a way to undermine the agency’s independent research into the health risks of toxic chemicals. Senators Markey (D-MA), Whitehouse (D-RI) and Carper (D-DE) have reported that multiple political appointees within EPA are expressing reluctance to move the assessment out of the agency review process. In regards to the EPA’s political appointees, one anonymous EPA official said to Politico, “They’re stonewalling every step of the way.” Influence from industry may be playing a role – the industry trade group American Chemistry Council (ACC) has been pressuring EPA officials to not release the assessment and is sowing doubts about formaldehyde’s heath risks.
This is not the first time that the EPA under the Trump administration has played a role in suppressing a scientific report – other examples include the suppression of a report on the health effects of a chemical found in Teflon and the suppression of a report on the financial burdens associated with the restricting science rule. Risk assessments on toxic chemicals come from the EPA’s IRIS program, which often acts as a basis for local, state, federal and even international regulation. By delaying the release of the formaldehyde report, the EPA is impeding the ability of various regulatory bodies to effectively stop formaldehyde from causing deleterious health effects, like certain cancers, in the general population. The EPA’s scientific integrity policy states that “science is the backbone of the EPA’s decision-making” and that it is “essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings.” It is imperative that federal scientists are free to use evidence-based methodologies to produce the best science without fear that they will be repressed if their findings are considered politically contentious.