Industry Pressure Delays the Release of IRIS Formaldehyde Study

Danger Formaldehyde

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from the chemical industry, has delayed the release of a study detailing cancer risks from formaldehyde, according to internal communications seen by Reuters, potentially keeping important health information from the public.

Top EPA officials have declined to review the study or be briefed by its experts on the findings, the internal communications showed.

The EPA already lists formaldehyde, used in building materials like plywood and foam insulation, as a probable carcinogen. The new report is expected for the first time to detail its links to leukemia.

The report, an update of the EPA’s existing human health assessment of the widely used chemical, was completed by scientists from the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) late last year and must go through a months-long internal review process before it can be issued to the public for comment.

The delay could further heighten scrutiny of EPA, already fending off complaints that it and the White House considered blocking a study on water contamination by PFOA and PFOS, chemicals used in Teflon and firefighting. Politico reported on May 14 that a Trump administration aide had warned release of that study would cause a “public relations nightmare.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, said delaying the report fits a broader pattern of the agency’s political leadership interfering with public health research.

“By sweeping scientific assessments under the rug, EPA fails to fulfill its mission of protecting public health. The public has the right to know about public health threats,” said Yogin Kothari, UCS Washington director.

The EPA told Congress in early February it expected to start the agency review process for the formaldehyde assessment “shortly,” according to the EPA staff communications.

But in follow-up communications between agency employees in late April, one career staffer wrote that EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum, and Wehrum’s deputy Clint Woods had not given their permission to initiate the review and had refused offers from EPA scientists to brief them on it.

“No office in the EPA is interested in formaldehyde,” the staffer wrote.

The 60-to-90-day agency review and a subsequent inter-agency review of a similar duration must happen before the study can be issued for public comment.

Prior to the communications, the chemistry industry’s main lobby group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), had been pressuring the EPA to avoid drawing links between formaldehyde and leukemia in its assessment.

EPA’s deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Nancy Beck, previously served as director of regulatory science policy at the ACC. Beck was not named in the communication.

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