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Formaldehyde causes cancer. The EPA doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

The Trump administration is reportedly suppressing a report about the chemical’s health harms.

Formaldehyde is used in household products, including antiseptics, medicines, and cosmetics.
Getty Images/Cultura RF

Trump administration officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are reportedly suppressing a highly anticipated report that would warn Americans about the cancer risks that come with one of the most common chemicals in our environment.

The draft risk assessment, from the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, is expected to show that ingesting formaldehyde — breathing it in through car and furniture emissions, or slathering it on our skin via cosmetics — can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancers. The report was completed last fall, and slated to move on to the National Academies of Science for external peer review.

But more than five months after Scott Pruitt, the former EPA chief who resigned Thursday, told a Senate panel that he believed the report was ready, it still hasn’t seen the light of day.

Politico broke the story today that helps explain why: Top advisers to Pruitt have been dragging their feet in order to protect the chemical industry from damning revelations that would prompt stricter regulations and possibly class-action lawsuits by cancer patients.

In a statement, an EPA spokesperson told Vox, “EPA continues to discuss this assessment with our Agency program partners and have no further updates to provide at this time. Assessments of this type are often the result of needs for particular rulemakings and undergo an extensive intra-agency and interagency process.”

But according to Politico, and a May letter from US senators to Pruitt, internal documents about the report tell a different story.

Here’s the May letter from Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Tom Carper (D-DE):

“We have learned ... that multiple political appointees within EPA have expressed reluctance to move the assessment through the agency review process, have repeatedly set up briefings on the assessment only to later cancel them, and/or have insisted that IRIS first set up briefings for industry stakeholders before completing agency review. ...

We have also learned that, at the same time as EPA political appointees’ requests were delaying the formaldehyde assessment’s movement through the agency review process, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) as well as interested corporation such as ExxonMobil have been pressuring EPA not to release the assessment for public comment as drafted.

Politico’s Annie Snider, meanwhile, reports that a trade group representing chemical businesses frequently contacted top EPA officials and asked them to avoid releasing the report:

“As stated in our meeting, a premature release of a draft assessment … will cause irreparable harm to the companies represented by the Panel and to the many companies and jobs that depend on the broad use of the chemical,” Kimberly Wise White, who leads the American Chemistry Council’s Formaldehyde Panel, wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to top officials at the EPA. The panel represents companies including Exxon Mobil and the Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia-Pacific Chemicals LLC that could face higher costs from stricter regulations or lawsuits.

The story paints a pretty disturbing picture: Trump’s EPA seems to be keeping information from Americans about their exposure to a ubiquitous cancer-causing chemical — and staving off regulations that would protect them. And given that Trump’s appointee to oversee the EPA’s toxic chemical unit, Nancy Beck, used to be an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association for American chemical companies, this might not come as a surprise.

The dangers of formaldehyde have long been known

Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that’s used to make building materials like particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard — so it’s found in our houses and furniture. It’s present in car emissions, industrial fungicide and disinfectant, and many household products (including cleaners, medicines, soaps, and cosmetics), according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s also an ingredient in cigarettes, and some e-cigarette products.

Products that contain formaldehyde release the chemical as a gas or vapor, so people can breathe it in or absorb it through the skin when it’s in liquid form.

In the short term, when formaldehyde is in the air at levels more than 0.1 ppm, exposure can cause “watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation,” NCI says.

Long-term exposure is known to cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer. (Though it’s not known how much of the chemical is needed to become harmful and for how long a person would need to be exposed.) The National Toxicology Program says formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen”; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it causes cancer; and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer calls the chemical “carcinogenic to humans.”

The EPA has lagged behind these other agencies on naming formaldehyde’s cancer risks outright, calling it instead a “probable” human carcinogen. Since the EPA regulates environmental exposures, this distinction about the chemical’s cancer risk matters for public health and the chemical industry: elevating formaldehyde to a known carcinogen would likely prompt class-action lawsuits from cancer patients, as well as tougher regulations.

What’s next for the risk assessment isn’t clear. Andrew Wheeler, EPA deputy administrator and a former coal lobbyist, will take the helm of the EPA as acting director on Monday. Wheeler is expected to continue carrying out the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda, including weakening chemical regulators. So the question of whether the report will see the light of day may be more a matter of “if” than “when.”