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In a move that would make the various environmental groups happy, formaldehyde has been added to the list of carcinogens by the US Government and a warning has been issued against the probable carcinogenicity of styrene.
The Government has based its list on the recommendations of the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

Formaldehyde is widely used in many household items like plastics, composite wood products, synthetic fibers, textile finishes, paper product coatings, etc. Styrene is used in the manufacture of rubber, plastic, automobile parts, food containers, etc.

The report prepared for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that scientists have found enough evidence linking the use of formaldehyde to increased incidence of certain types of cancers such as nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia and other cancers.

While the environmental groups are lauding the Government on adding formaldehyde to its list of carcinogens even in the face of stiff opposition from the chemical industry, the latter is crying foul.

According to Car Dooley, President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the list smacks of politics. He said that the list was based on unfounded evidences and will unnecessarily alarm the consumers.

Though the list has added formaldehyde as a carcinogen, it does not mean that it causes cancer. The development of cancer depends upon the amount and duration of exposure and the susceptibility of an individual to the substance besides other things.

There was Mounting Evidence Suggesting Formaldehyde as a Carcinogen

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong smelling chemical widely used in the manufacture of many household items. It is also used in the industry as a fungicide, germicide and as a disinfectant. Formaldehyde is also used as a preservative in medical laboratories, mortuaries, and some consumer products, including hair straightening products. Of late, it is being commonly used in Brazilian blow out technique for straightening hair.

Formaldehyde is a natural product and is produced as a part of normal metabolic process by most living organisms.

Susceptibility to formaldehyde varies from person to person with some individuals sensitive to it even at levels of 0.1 parts per million. These individuals may complain of excessive watering from eyes, burning sensation in eyes, nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation.

Formaldehyde has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It was declared as a toxic substance in Canada, way back in 1999. In Europe also, some of the uses of formaldehyde are banned. An NCI case control study among funeral industry workers who are exposed to a high concentration of formaldehyde, found an association between increasing exposure to formaldehyde and increased mortality from myeloid leukemia. Now, the National Toxicology Program, an interagency program of the Department of Health and Human Services, named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens. The US Government was bound by the limitations of the Toxic Substances Control Act but now, it has finally realized the growing evidence of dangers of formaldehyde exposure and has added it to the list of carcinogens.

  • Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. Cancer.gov, accessed on 24 June 2011
  • Bryan Walsh. June 11, 2011. Why the Federal Government Finally Acted on Chemical Safety. Accessed on 24 June 2011
  • Photo courtesy of cjp24 on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/cjp24/5744968358