Formaldehyde, scientists, and politics

A new commentary by CUNY School of Public Health professor Franklin Mirer is timed perfectly for this weekend’s Marches for Science.

Mirer writes about the ongoing interference by Members of Congress on the science behind the designation of formaldehyde as a carcinogen. His commentary, “What’s Science Got to Do with It?” appears in the current issue of April issue of the Synergist, a membership publication of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Mirer’s example concerns a rule published by EPA in December 2016 on testing formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products (e.g., plywood and particle board.) Mirer recaps the formaldehyde risk assessments prepared by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the National Academy of Sciences. All have concluded there is sufficient evidence to classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. They note causal association between exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia and upper airway cancers.

But the Formaldehyde Council and other industry groups are threatened by the science. They’ve found friends on Capitol Hill to assist them in questioning the conclusions of authoritative scientific bodies. As Mirer notes, one of those lawmakers was David Vitter (R-LA). In 2009, the Senator insisted that the EPA request an independent review of its formaldehyde risk assessment from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). (Vitter, by the way, retired from the Senate in 2017 and now works for the lobbying firm Mercury.) EPA and NAS did what Vitter asked, but that wasn’t enough delay for the industry. Congress again directed additional taxpayer money for NAS to evaluate the NTP’s determination that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. (More here and here on the formaldehyde saga.)

In Mirer’s “What’s Science Got to Do with It?” he highlights the consequences of the political interference and the delay in public protections from formaldehyde. He also offers the following lessons:

First, authoritative scientific conclusions are derived from institutions governed by senior scientists and from processes that encompass expert review. Science is what scientists say it is.

Second, initial scientific skepticism about whether formaldehyde inhalation causes leukemia (based on epidemiology) has become a minority position, although it’s not a denialist position. Most skeptics have industry funding.

Finally, a political process continues to delay the incorporation of the majority scientific opinion into the EPA risk assessment for formaldehyde.

Shortly after President Trump took office the White House issued a memorandum to all agency heads entitled “Regulatory Freeze Pending Review.” As a result, the effective date for EPA’s testing rule on formaldehyde has been delayed until May 22, 2017. I’ll be looking to Dr. Mirer for updates on the rule and no doubt further industry-driven interference by non-scientist lawmakers.