By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
WHO knew that carcinogens had their own lobby in Washington?
Don’t believe me? Just consider formaldehyde, which is found in everything from nail polish to kitchen countertops, fabric softeners to carpets. Largely because of its use in building materials, we breathe formaldehyde fumes when we’re inside our homes.
Just one other fact you should know: According to government scientists, it causes cancer.
The chemical industry is working frantically to suppress that scientific consensus — because it fears “public confusion.” Big Chem apparently worries that you might be confused if you learned that formaldehyde caused cancer of the nose and throat, and perhaps leukemia as well.
The industry’s strategy is to lobby Congress to cut off money for the Report on Carcinogens, a 500-page consensus document published every two years by the National Institutes of Health, containing the best information about what agents cause cancer. If that sounds like shooting the messenger, well, it is.
“The way the free market is supposed to work is that you have information,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the school of public health at George Washington University. “They’re trying to squelch that information.”
The larger issue is whether the federal government should be a watchdog for public health, or a lap dog for industry. When Mitt Romney denounces President Obama for excessive regulation, these are the kinds of issues at stake.
“Formaldehyde is known to be a human carcinogen,” declared the most recent Report on Carcinogens, published in 2011. Previous editions had listed it only as a suspected carcinogen, but the newer report, citing many studies of human and animal exposure to formaldehyde, made the case that it was time to stop equivocating.
The chemical industry was outraged, because it sells lots of formaldehyde that ends up in people’s homes, often without their knowledge.
“Nearly all homes had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation,” according to a 2009 survey by the California Energy Commission.
The Report on Carcinogens also offended the chemical industry by listing styrene for the first time as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.” Styrene, which goes into everything from boats to shower stalls, is mostly a risk to those who work in factories where it is used, so it’s less of an issue for the general public.
The chemical industry is represented in Washington by the American Chemistry Council, which is the lobbying front for chemical giants like Exxon Mobil, Dow, BASF and DuPont. Those companies should understand that they risk their reputations when they toy with human lives.
The American Chemistry Council first got its pals in Congress to order a $1 million follow-up study on formaldehyde and styrene. Then it demanded, through a provision drafted by Representative Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican, that no money be spent on another Report on Carcinogens until the follow-up was completed — meaning a four-year delay until the next report. Stay tuned for an industry effort to slip some such provision into the next budget legislation.
Let’s be clear. There is uncertainty about toxic chemicals, and it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the Report on Carcinogens. But this effort to defund the report is an insult to science and democracy alike.
Barbara K. Rimer, the chairwoman of the President’s Cancer Panel, told me that there might be ways to improve the Report on Carcinogens but that it would be wrong to cut off money for it. “Without this program, there would be a gap in the protection of the public,” she said.
Last month, 76 scientists wrote a joint letter to Congress noting that the World Health Organization also listed formaldehyde as a known carcinogen, and styrene as a possible carcinogen. They defended the Report on Carcinogens as “consistent with international scientific consensus.”
“The American Chemistry Council is working to delay and ultimately destroy” the Report on Carcinogens, the scientists wrote.
The chemical council declined to speak to me on the record. It has a long record of obfuscation, borrowing the same strategies that the tobacco industry used to delay regulation of cigarettes.
“It’s the same playbook,” noted Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The American Chemistry Council is also trying to undermine scientific reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can say this for our political system: Even carcinogens have an advocate in Washington!
The basic strategy is an old one. As David Michaels notes in his book “Doubt Is Their Product,” the first evidence that asbestos causes cancer emerged in the 1930s. But three decades later, industry executives were still railing about “ill-informed and exaggerated” press reports, still covering up staggering cancer rates, and still denouncing regulation of asbestos as “premature.” Huge numbers of Americans today are dying as a result.
Do we really want to go through that again?
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