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Formaldehyde shown to raise cancer risk in workers

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The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that they have found a continuing “possible link” between formaldehyde exposure and death from cancers of the blood and lymphatic system among workers exposed to the chemical. The story has been reported in USA Today and other news sources.

How do you come into contact with formaldehyde? The NCI explains:

  • Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used to manufacture building materials and to produce many household products.
  • Formaldehyde sources in the home include pressed-wood products, cigarette smoke, and fuel-burning appliances.
  • When exposed to formaldehyde, some individuals may experience various short-term health effects.
  • Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Research studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the nasal sinuses, nasopharynx, and brain, and possibly leukemia.

THE NCI helps in an understanding of Formaldehyde:

  • What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used to manufacture building materials and to produce many household products. It is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories.

  • How is the general population exposed to formaldehyde?

According to a 1997 report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, formaldehyde is normally present in both indoor and outdoor air at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm). Materials containing formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas or vapor into the air. One example of formaldehyde exposure in the air is through automobile tailpipe emissions.

During the 1970s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was used in many homes. However, few homes are now insulated with UFFI. Homes in which UFFI was installed many years ago are not likely to have high formaldehyde levels now. Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde resins are often a significant source of formaldehyde in homes. Other potential indoor sources of formaldehyde include cigarette smoke and the use of unvented fuel-burning appliances, such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters.

Industrial workers who produce formaldehyde or formaldehyde-containing products, laboratory technicians, health care professionals, and mortuary employees may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde than the general public. Exposure occurs primarily by inhaling formaldehyde gas or vapor from the air or by absorbing liquids containing formaldehyde through the skin.

  • What are the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure?

When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm, some individuals may experience health effects, such as watery eyes; burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no reaction to the same level of exposure.

The report is part of an ongoing study of industrial workers in plants making formaldehyde products. Mortality From Lymphohematopoietic Malignancies Among Workers in Formaldehyde Industries: The National Cancer Institute Cohort

“Since the 1980s, NCI has studied cancer deaths among a group of 25,619 workers, predominately white males, who were employed before 1966 in 10 industrial plants that produced formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin and that used the chemical to produce molded-plastic products, decorative laminates, photographic film, or plywood,” according to the NCI release.

These workers show a higher susceptibility to certain cancers, especially among workers with high exposure to the chemical, researchers say.

“Workers with the highest peak exposures had a 37 percent increased risk of death compared to those with the lowest level of peak exposures. This represents an excess risk of death from several specific cancers, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and myeloid leukemia – the type most often associated with chemical exposure,” the NCI release noted.

Researchers called the findings “not definitive” but “consistent” with previous work showing a relationship between formaldehyde and cancers of the blood and lymphatic system. Analysis of the same group of workers has shown that the risk of death from myeloid leukemia, for instance, was 78 percent higher among industrial workers with the highest peak exposures compared to those with the lowest peak exposures (though the risk has been declining over time, possibly due to “chance” or due to the risk of developing the cancer peaking relatively soon after exposure).

The Formaldehyde Council disputed the study, noting that the researchers’ concession that the cancer link was not “definitive.” The industry group asserted that “the rate of leukemia in the study group is no different than that in the U.S. population” and called for more research into the health effects of formaldehyde by the National Academy of Sciences.

Formaldehyde is found in pressed wood products used in construction, cabinetry, insulation, disinfectants and in some beauty products, where it turns up as a preservative.

It remains unclear whether routine household exposure to the chemical would raise anyone’s risk of contracting cancer. But advocacy groups concerned about the build-up of many chemicals in the body advise consumers to be aware of formaldehyde in products and to wear gloves when using disinfectants or cleaners containing the product.

I have written on formaldehyde clothing dermatitis in connection with Victoria’s Secret bras:

Victoria’s Secret Bras Contaminated With Formaldehyde According To Ohio Woman’s Lawsuit

Formaldehyde Clothing Dermatitis – Victoria’s Secret Bras

Jamie Goldstein top personal injury attorney in Chicago is handling a number of these cases.

Victoria’s Secret is Out – She’s Putting Formaldehyde in Her Bras

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recently found a small amount of formaldehyde in baby products, which has triggered a bill in Congress called the Safe Baby Products Act that would ban the chemical in such consumer items.