Despite study linking formaldehyde to cancer, Maine agency not requiring its disclosure in products

Posted Sept. 03, 2014, at 4:26 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 03, 2014, at 7:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite a new national study that deems formaldehyde a known cancer-causing chemical in humans, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is awaiting more information before forcing manufacturers to disclose the presence of the compound in their products.

That’s got some critics accusing the state of intentionally dragging its feet and caving to pressure from the chemicals industry.

Back in May, the state Department of Environmental Protection dropped its 5-month-old proposed rule that would have added formaldehyde to the state’s priority chemical list, requiring manufacturers that sold goods in Maine to disclose when the dangerous chemical was present in their products.

Formaldehyde, a colorless, odorous gas, is known to cause cancer, particularly of the nose and throat. It also is an ingredient of resins commonly used in wood products, fabrics, plastics and other items commonly sold in Maine. The industrial chemical can be released into the air from products manufactured with it, potentially irritating a person’s airways. Children are particularly sensitive to its health effects.

The chemical was originally included in a group of four chemicals added to the list. The DEP continued with its plan to list cadmium, arsenic and mercury as priority chemicals, but it dropped formaldehyde.

Jessamine Logan, the DEP’s spokeswoman, said that the department learned during the public comment period of rulemaking that the National Academy of Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency were both conducting new assessments of formaldehyde’s link to cancer and other health risks.

In August, the National Academy of Sciences — one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world — released the results of its assessment and confirmed formaldehyde is a “known human carcinogen.”

After the assessment was released, Prevent Harm, a consumer safety group spearheaded by former Democratic House Speaker Hannah Pingree, called on the DEP to renew its efforts to require disclosure of formaldehyde in consumer products.

But the DEP is still waiting for more information, Logan said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still conducting its own new review of formaldehyde’s health risks. That assessment began 10 years ago, and even the Environmental Protection Agency says it doesn’t yet know how soon it will be done, though Logan said it was safe to assume a “deliberately thoughtful pace” by the feds.

“The department believes that it is prudent to wait until this important piece of research is concluded” before taking any action regarding formaldehyde, Logan said.

The Environmental Protection Agency sees the link between formaldehyde and cancer as less conclusive than other researchers, including the National Academy of Sciences, though consumer advocates such as Prevent Harm say this is only because of meddling by the chemical lobby — a stance backed up by a 2010 investigative report by ProPublica.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] has been trying since 1998 to update the formaldehyde assessment, which was first written in 1989,” according to ProPublica reporter Joaquin Sapien. “But the agency’s efforts have repeatedly been stalled by the industry and Congress.”

For Mike Belliveau, president of Prevent Harm, the new Environmental Protection Agency assessment is unnecessary. He said Wednesday that waiting for the federal government to act is against the spirit of the state’s chemical safety law.

“The whole point of having a state-based chemical safety law is to no longer have to wait for federal leadership, which is lacking. The federal chemical safety system is badly broken,” he said.

Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, is a doctor and member of the legislative committee that oversees the DEP. He said study after study since at least 1989 have linked formaldehyde to cancer. The science, he said, is conclusive.

“How many studies do you need?” he said Wednesday. “The data seems to be pretty overwhelming. I want to see the governor’s office take leadership in protecting the health of our children. … If you won’t take 25 years of data, there must be some reason.”

Gratwick wondered whether LePage had felt the same pressure that the chemical industry has focused on lawmakers in Washington, D.C., where federal action on formaldehyde has stalled for at least a decade.

Koch Industries, run by billionaire brothers and major conservative donors Charles and David Koch, owns one of the largest formaldehyde producing companies in the country, according to ProPublica. It also is a founding partner of the American Chemical Council’s Formaldehyde Panel, which testified against the DEP’s proposed formaldehyde rule back in January.

That panel, in August, issued a rebuke of the National Academy of Sciences assessment that formaldehyde causes cancer in humans.

“Formaldehyde is safely used as a building block chemical for many products,” the group said in a news release. “Formaldehyde has been thoroughly reviewed at the federal level, and its use is subject to regulation in consumer products and in the workplace. The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments.”

BDN Health Editor Jackie Farwell contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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