Plywood Rule Used Industry Funded Research, Ignored Independent Scientific Studies

Published Apr 11, 2004

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted a new air pollution rule that would exempt many plywood manufacturers from restrictions on the emission of formaldehyde and other pollutants into the air. Data from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) show that the so-called Plywood Rule would cost the American public at least $300 million a year in added public health costs from fine particle pollution, while saving the industry only $66 million a year in compliance costs.¹ Formaldehyde, a key ingredient in the glue that holds plywood together, has long been linked to health problems including asthma and cancer.² 

Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA employee and current director of the Environmental Integrity Project, summed up the new rule as follows: "A close look at the new emission loopholes for plywood makers . . . shows that the White House Office of Management and Budget and its political allies at EPA distorted science to minimize risk and maximize the number of plants eligible for the exemptions."³

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2004 that the new regulations were based on an unusual risk assessment created by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, an industry-funded think tank. The new assessment was "about 10,000 times less stringent than the level previously used by the EPA in setting general standards for formaldehyde exposure."4 At the same time, the EPA ignored two new studies by National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that pointed to a link between exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia in humans.5

The new rule enables the EPA to classify individual wood products plants as "low risk" and exempt them from stringent controls on formaldehyde and other emissions.6 Many scientists and policy makers argued that the new rule violated the spirit of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which permitted the EPA to exempt classes of pollutants from controls only if they posed "less than a one-in-a-million cancer risk," a standard that the plywood industry could not meet.

The Times reported that EPA attorneys questioned the new rule. A memo from the EPA's general counsel's office said that the rule "results in a regulatory approach equivalent to the one Congress specifically rejected" in 1990, and that "EPA would have a difficult time articulating any rational basis to defend such a … scheme."7 Indeed, Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) said that the new plant-by-plant risk assessment runs "directly contrary to our intent" in the original drafting of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Former Senator David F. Durenberger (R-MN) explained "I don’t have any doubt that is a way to get around the policy which we worked hard to achieve."8

Evidence suggests that the new rule was formulated with undue influence from the timber and chemical industries. The Times reported that the idea for the new rule came from a lawyer at Latham & Watkins, a firm that represents timber interests. The rule was subsequently advanced by Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's chief air pollution regulator, who was also a former lawyer at Latham & Watkins. John D. Graham, regulatory chief of the Office of Management and Budget and a man with a long history of ties to the timber industry, was a key force in the adoption of the new rule.

In response to a petition from the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Integrity Project, the EPA agreed to reconsider the ruling. The petition challenged the risk assessment methodology, legal basis, and other provisions of the original ruling. Two years later, in January 2006, the EPA issued a final decision retaining all provisions of the new rule, saying "no changes to the final rule are warranted."9

The actions of the EPA contrast with the California Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants, which after carefully reviewing current scientific research of the health risks associated with formaldehyde, voted unanimously against reconsidering its formaldehyde regulations.10

1. “Stacking the Deck: How EPA’s New Air Toxics Rules Gamble with the Public’s Health to Benefit Industry,” Environmental Integrity Project, accessed 22 November 2006.

2. Environmental Protection Agency: An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality, accessed 22 November 2006.

3. Environmental Integrity Project news release, “Report: Bush EPA’S Bad Science “Stacks Deck” on Pollution Rules,” May 24, 2004.

4. Miller, Alan C. and Tom Hamburger. “EPA Relied on Industry for Plywood Plant Pollution Rule.” Los Angeles Times. Friday, May 21, 2004. Accessed 22 November 2006.

5. Hauptmann M., et al. 2003. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies among workers in formaldehyde industries. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 95: 1615;  Pinkerton L. E., et al. 2004. Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 61:193.

6. Environmental Protection Agency, “National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants,” Final Rule, Federal Register, Vol. 69, No. 146, July 30, 2004, accessed December 7, 2006.

7. Miller and Hamburger.

8. Ibid.

9. Environmental Protection Agency, “Final Amendments to and Final Action on Reconsideration of the Air Toxics Regulations for the Plywood and Composite Wood Products Industry,” accessed November 23, 2006.

10. Meeting of State of California Air Resources Board, Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants, May 19, 2004, accessed December 7, 2006.