Everything Causes Cancer If You Listen to the NRDC

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shutterstock_183195284 Formaldehyde Structure via Shutterstock

I wish that when I was a student of anatomy I could have argued my way out of dissecting stinky cadavers and I would have had a friend in Jennifer Sass, an alarmist who blogs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She sounds off on a recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which discusses health concerns regarding formaldehyde.

Ms. Sass has a real issue with Lumber Liquidators, a commercial flooring company, which came under fire after an expose by 60 Minutes last year. The program revealed that some of the company s laminate wood flooring manufactured in China contained an unsafe level of formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. That claim is consistent with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the same group that claims bacon is as likely to cause cancer as smoking. In 2009, IARC concluded that there is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde causes cancer of the nasopharynx and leukaemia.

This IARC conclusion was based on the views of a small majority while a subset of the agency found that there was limited evidence to support this claim. IARC's classification of formaldehyde prompted the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' National Toxicology Program to change its classification of formaldehyde from anticipated to be carcinogenic in humans to known to be a human carcinogen.

The problem with these exposes and doomsday prophets is that the recommendations are based on either inaccurate data or on such prolonged, high-intensity exposure that virtually any chemical would cause cancer even bacon.

To begin with, what is formaldehyde? It's composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen and is environmentally and biologically ubiquitous. Major exposures occur in manufacturing of construction materials, plastics and garments; cigarette smoking; consumer products including personal care products and some medications; and ambient air pollution are common non-occupational sources.

Formaldehyde can also be produced endogenously as it is part of the metabolism of amino acids and nucleic acids and is present in small quantities in all tissues of the body. Exogenous formaldehyde is immediately broken down at the site of entry (i.e. in the upper respiratory tract) and there is consistent evidence that it cannot reach distal organs including the bone marrow.

It is a colorless gas that most commonly comes in an aqueous solution (aka formalin solution) that has a characteristic pungent and unpleasant odor in both gas and liquid forms. Low-level exposures will cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin; nausea; and difficulty breathing. It primarily will cause respiratory symptoms which have a dose response increase in severity. If it's consumed, it can lead to coma and death.

However, despite claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence that it causes cancer in humans and previous epidemiological evidence does not support associations between formaldehyde and lymphohematopoetic malignancies (i.e. Hodgkin s lymphoma, AML or CML).

Even NASA, in its comments to the EPA on its draft IRIS risk assessment for formaldehyde, found specific technical issues and inconsistencies with conclusions reached in a 2007 National Research Council report. NASA s review and comments border on scathing and in reading it, makes one question what the motivation is behind EPA s demonizing formaldehyde.

In one example, NASA states that EPA sets the noncancer estimate and the age-adjusted cancer slope factor in an equivalent air concentrations of 1-3 ppb ¦ human breath has often been measured to contain levels in excess of 1-3 ppb ¦ EPA does not provide justification of setting of a level less or equal to normal thresholds of formaldehyde found in the human body.

In reviewing the available data, it would seem rather foolhardy to condemn a commonly used, commercially valuable product to the dreaded regions of neoplastic potential. According to the fair and balanced blogging by the NRDC's Ms. Sass, she insinuates that the evil Lumber Liquidators, which would eat children for breakfast if it could, should be banished from our sights for its reckless negligence in playing with our families health. I d like to point out that these sorts of alarmist rants serve only to discredit her.