White House Weakened Rule to Regulate Formaldehyde

Published Jun 9, 2015

What happened: In 2012, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) altered the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) scientific findings underlying a rule to regulate the use of formaldehyde, including eliminating the monetary benefits associated with asthma as a health impact.

Why it matters: The White House overstepped their purview when reviewing the EPA’s formaldehyde rule and, by altering the scientific findings, they undermined the science-based processes that are meant to govern the EPA’s regulation of toxic chemicals.

When reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule to regulate the use of formaldehyde, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) undermined the scientific findings by deleting the quantifiable benefits of several key health impacts from the rule, including the elimination of asthma. The subagency that reviews agency rules and regulations, the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), deleted many of the monetary estimates of the health benefits associated with the regulation of formaldehyde from the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis. This included the elimination of benefits associated with the reduction in cases of asthma, other respiratory problems, and reduced fertility in women.

OIRA’s actions reduced the associated benefits of regulating formaldehyde from up to $278 million a year to $48 million a year. This greatly weakened the justification for portions of the EPA’s rule. In particular, OIRA’s actions helped to weaken the EPA’s proposed requirement that furniture makers and other companies that sold laminated wood carry out tests of formaldehyde levels from their products to ensure that the products do not harm the public.

White House records show that in mid-2012, OIRA staff met five times with industry representatives on the topic of the proposed formaldehyde rule. Several industry group, particularly the American Chemistry Council (ACC), worked for years to aggressively undermine formaldehyde regulations.

To assess the health impacts of the proposed formaldehyde rule, the EPA had relied on scientific evidence from its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment of formaldehyde, a study considered to be the gold standard in identifying and characterizing the health hazards of chemicals. The EPA’s IRIS assessment of formaldehyde was supported by a peer review from the National Academy of Sciences. Using this information, the EPA had determined that the health impacts of regulating formaldehyde would provide enormous benefits to society, especially from the reduction of medical care and hospitalizations for children with asthma.

Formaldehyde is a chemical that can cause cancer, such as leukemia and cancer of the nose and throat, and respiratory ailments like asthma. One common route of exposure to formaldehyde is through vapors released from certain manufactured wood products such as cabinets, furniture, plywood, particleboard, and laminate flooring.

The dangers of formaldehyde gained national prominence in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People displaced by the storm were housed in temporary trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and they reported respiratory problems that included burning eyes and other issues. Tests confirmed that the people living in the FEMA trailers were exposed to high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. This promoted Congress to pass a law in 2010 to provide tighter limits on the use of formaldehyde. The EPA’s formaldehyde rule was in response to this legislation.

By deleting key portions of the EPA rule to regulate formaldehyde, White House staff sidelined a rigorous analysis by EPA scientists showing the harms of this chemical and instead sided with industry to substantially weaken the science-based portions of the rule. White House staff placed business interest over public health by failing to consider the best available science in its rulemaking processes. As a result, the Obama administration failed to enact strong science-based safeguards to protect people across the country from the dangers of formaldehyde exposure.