Formaldehyde Linked to Workplace Cancers
It's in the plywood in your walls, in the carpet on your floor, in the polish on your nails, in the exhaust your car spits out, in the smoke you inhale from a colleague's cigarette, and in the trailer home the government gave you after Hurricane Katrina. And a recent study found formaldehyde in 23 out of 28 kid's bath products. Formaldehyde is also commonly used in industry as a disinfectant and preservative, so if you worked in a manufacturing plant at any point in your life, you probably had plenty of exposure. Over two million American workers still experience significant exposure to the chemical, long linked with rare cancers, on the job. And now, a new study shows that the formaldehyde may also cause more common cancers of the blood and lymphatic systems, including Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and myeloid leukemia.
The study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute, followed 25,619 employees over a 42-year period. The subjects all worked at plants that manufactured formaldehyde or formaldehyde resins as part of the manufacturing process. Those who had experienced the highest level of peak formaldehyde exposure -- meaning exposure to the highest dose at one time -- had a 37 percent greater rate of death from blood and lymphatic cancers compared to those with the least exposure. Highly exposed workers also had almost four times the risk of dying from Hodgkin's lymphoma and a 78-percent higher risk of developing myeloid leukemia -- a form of leukemia that affects disproportionate numbers of pathologists and embalmers, whose jobs require the use of formaldehyde.
Most of the subjects in the study had stopped working with formaldehyde by 1980 (either they retired or moved to other jobs). The risk of death from the various blood and lymphatic system cancers was highest earlier on, declining in the study group over the years. Ten years ago, the data showed a 50 percent increased risk of developing these cancers as opposed to the 37 percent increased risk found in the latest analysis. The researchers attribute the diminished risk over the course of the study to the amount of time lapsed without exposure to the carcinogen.
"You usually don't develop cancer right away -- there's a latency period," said study director Dr. Laura Freeman. "Then, after you're not exposed to whatever it is -- after people stop smoking for a while, for example -- the risk returns down to that of the base-line population."
According to the New York Times, "The Formaldehyde Council, a trade group [no kidding, there really is such a group], noted that [the study] did not clearly establish a cause-and-effect relationship between formaldehyde and cancer." The Council emphasized that the public shouldn't be concerned about formaldehyde because most people have such minimal exposure in the course of every day living. But Dr. Freeman has a different take. "Further studies are needed to evaluate risks of these cancers in other formaldehyde-exposed populations and to assess possible biological mechanisms," she said. Since virtually all of us are formaldehyde-exposed, that means that the entire population may be affected by the stuff.
The EPA listed formaldehyde as a "probable human carcinogen" back in 1987, and by 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer stepped up the ante, listing the chemical as a "known human carcinogen."
Which brings up the question of why the chemical is so ubiquitous, if it's already clear that it triggers cancer, and if studies keep uncovering ever more evidence of that fact? Lab studies have shown formaldehyde inhalation causes nasal cancer in rats and gastrointestinal cancers, plus chromosomal abnormalities. Other effects of exposure may include sore throat, allergic reactions, liver toxicity, vision impairment, violent vomiting, coughing, dermatitis, pulmonary edema, abdominal pain, loss of consciousness, and even death. And yet, in addition to the sources named above -- it's in perma-press clothing, in stain-proofed upholstery, in fertilizers and paints, in toothpaste, liquid soap, shampoo products, and paper towels. In other words, you're probably exposed to it hundreds of times a day.
Back in 1981, another New York Times article discussed a pending formaldehyde ban being considered at both federal and state levels. At that time, six billion pounds of formaldehyde were produced annually, and experts projected a $25 billion annual loss by the textile industry alone if the ban was enforced. Instead of a ban, by 2005, annual formaldehyde production had jumped to 46 billion pounds. And while much of the world has, in fact, imposed severe restrictions on formaldehyde use, the US maintains more lenient standards, being one of the only nations in the world still selling plywood containing high levels of formaldehyde. Even China has banned plywood that the US still markets.
How can you minimize exposure? Purify the air in your home, for starters. If possible, use non-toxic building materials and paints in your home, natural fibers for clothing and furniture, and non-toxic personal health products. Avoid cigarette smoke, chemical fertilizers, and car exhaust. Make sure you have good ventilation in the workplace, and if you're in school, study hard so you don't get demoted to eighth-grade biology where you'll have to once again dissect formaldehyde-preserved frogs. And of course, take your antioxidants and do your detoxification routines regularly. You might add melatonin to your repertoire, since some data indicates that it exerts a protective effect against formaldehyde.