Formaldehyde: A Case Study in EPA’s Failure to Protect Public Health and the Environment

Share This Post

According to its website, the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to “protect public health and the environment.” When the agency tries to do its job, it often runs into opposition led by special interests, private lobbyists, corporate apologists, and congressional representatives, all of whom have their own agenda, which has nothing to do with public health or the environment and everything to do with the millions (if not billions) of dollars made annually from their products.

The agency’s effort to regulate formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen that is commonly used in building materials found in most homes, is a classic case study in corporate influence and control of the agency’s work.

EPA began its process to regulate formaldehyde in compressed wood products in 2008, seven years ago. Its proposed rules, released for public comment on June, 2013, did not seek to ban formaldehyde, but rather to set exposure limits and establish testing standards for products sold in the U.S. Learn more about the EPA’s proposed rules for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.

Three times over the next two years, EPA reopened its public comment period to allow more public comment, most recently in May 2014. EPA has yet to release its final regulations with the latest timeline estimated to be sometime in the fall.

A story in the New York Times chronicled the delays in the agency’s efforts to regulate formaldehyde, a substance with clear public health risks. The article described the influence of the big furniture companies on Washington who in turn pressured EPA. It told of the actions of special interest such as the American Chemistry Council who challenged the agency’s determination that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. And it described the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget in evaluating the costs and benefits of the proposed regulation.

What gets lost in the hyperbole and grandstanding over costs and jobs is the fact that formaldehyde is a nasty chemical that is a known human carcinogen, that affects the central nervous system and that can damage the respiratory system, causing difficulty in breathing including asthma as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. At best this proposed regulation will attempt to define an “acceptable” level of formaldehyde vapors coming off pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials.

This is EPA’s version of protecting public health and the environment, agreeing with corporate interests after a tortured “public” process to a risk assessment that defines “acceptable” levels of risk that the public has to endure while the companies continue to earn their profits. The general public that has to live with formaldehyde fumes coming off wood products is not likely to see it this way. They might prefer that the agency try to figure out how much risk it can avoid, rather than how much is “acceptable.” But then if the EPA did that, then the influence imposed by the companies who make billions every year selling formaldehyde products might not be so critical.

More To Explore

The Urban Heat Island Effect

By Leanna Theam. I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college