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Chemical Industry Manipulations Fail to Change Scientific Fact

The verdict is in... again! Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. This is not earthshaking news or even news, but apparently Congress felt it was worth a million of your tax dollars to confirm what has been a scientific fact for nearly a decade: formaldehyde causes cancer; so said the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2006.

Federal government scientists at the interagency National Toxicology Program produce the biannual Report on Carcinogens, the government's official list of chemicals that are "reasonably anticipated" or "known" to cause cancer in humans. They make those determinations through a painstaking process that includes reviews by independent science advisory boards and multiple opportunities for public comment by a full range of stakeholders. In 2011, the 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) listed formaldehyde as a "known human carcinogen" and styrene as a "reasonably anticipated human carcinogen," another chemical listed by IARC, this one in 2002.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, the chemical companies that produce these two dangerous chemicals objected to the report's conclusion. Instead of taking responsible measures to protect the public and their workers from exposures to these chemicals, they went to Congress to try one more time to find scientists who would give them the answer they wanted. And Members of Congress, who receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in election contributions per year from the chemical industry, including the Koch Brothers, capitulated and ordered a whole new report re-investigating the safety of formaldehyde in the 2012 federal spending bill.

As a result, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was contracted to review the RoC findings on formaldehyde, as well as styrene, which NTP had concurrently noted as reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen. The cost to you and me? Two million taxpayer dollars. So we paid once for highly qualified non-biased government scientists to review the scientific evidence on the hazards of these chemicals; then we paid the NAS again to say "Yup, you were right!"

This chemical industry boondoggle demonstrates just how hard it will be to get the industry to change course and commit to making safer chemicals. For years, the industry PR machine has tried to spin the story that chemical makers really want to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation's chemical law, and bring it into the 21st century. But actions speak louder than spin. While professing a desire for change, the industry is fighting to keep two well-known cancer-causing chemicals churning through our economy.

Cancer-causing formaldehyde and styrene are ubiquitous in our environment and in products we use every day. Styrene is the building block of polystyrene, used to make Styrofoam food and beverage containers, coffee lids and more (look for the recycling code #6, often with "PS" below it). Formaldehyde is used in numerous consumer products, including furniture, construction materials and hundreds of cosmetic and personal care products where it is used as a preservative. In fact, the hair straightener Brazilian Blowout was found to be 5-12 percent formaldehyde, and caused acute harm to consumers and salon workers alike. Yet that level of formaldehyde -- which rivals the amount embalmers use -- is perfectly legal.

The ineffectiveness of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was made clear after the agency wrote the makers of Brazilian Blowout a letter politely asking them to stop using formaldehyde. The makers refused to change the formula, and the FDA lacked regulatory authority to force them to do so. So Brazilian Blowout with dangerous levels of formaldehyde remains available to consumers, despite serious health risks. And the FDA is a paper tiger, powerless to take action on serious threats found in cosmetics and personal care products. And that's just the way chemical and cosmetics industries want it--with them firmly in control of calling the shots on what's safe and what isn't, regardless of what health experts and government scientists know to be true.

It's time Congress and the public stood up to the chemical industry's relentless campaign to undermine and cast doubt on any science, whether done by universities of the government , that doesn't support their business plan and bottom line, regardless of the rigor of the study or the review. This country needs an economy that provides us with goods and services free of cancer-causing chemicals. It's fundamentally wrong that every day consumer goods like body lotions, household cleaners, and canned foods are loaded with chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, infertility, obesity, asthma and more. In the 21st century, we can do better than exposing ourselves to chemicals linked to these health concerns. Scientific knowledge is the key to solving the toxics crisis in our society, which makes it all the more critical that we don't allow the chemical industry and their political allies to get away with corrupting or undermining peer-reviewed science that conflicts with their world view. The health of future generations depends on it.

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Jeanne Rizzo

Jeanne Rizzo is President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund

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