Last week, EPA released a draft toxicological assessment of formaldehyde that the Trump administration had suppressed for years. The risk assessment was produced by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), whose gold-standard chemical toxicity reviews inform regulation and cleanup decisions. Formaldehyde, which is used in manufacturing resins, was designated a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2004 and the US’s National Toxicology Program in 2011. Its presence in a wide range of building materials and consumer products – and therefore in indoor and outdoor air – means both that exposure is widespread and that regulation would have significant implications for many companies. Those implications are likely why the assessment was suppressed for so long.
As expected, the formaldehyde draft assessment describes cancer risk. As Genna Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) explains, IRIS’s extensive scientific review process “found that breathing even small quantities of formaldehyde throughout a person’s lifetime is associated with an increased risk of leukemia and the development of head, neck and sinus cancer; asthma; allergies; decreased lung function; and even reproductive issues.” EPA will accept comments on the draft assessment for 60 days (until June 13, 2022), and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will conduct a peer review of it and convene a public meeting for discussion. After considering all this feedback, EPA will finalize the formaldehyde assessment.
Producing this kind of high-quality science takes time, and there’s always a tradeoff between being thorough and being fast. Long timelines are understandable; delays because of politically motivated suppression are unacceptable.
POLITICO’s Annie Snider reported in 2018 that EPA scientists completed the draft health assessment just before Donald Trump took office, but top advisors to then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt were “delaying its release as part of a campaign to undermine the agency’s independent research into the health risks of toxic chemicals.” This happened a time when, Snider explains, trade groups representing businesses that could face new regulation following the risk assessment’s release had frequent access to EPA officials; she quotes a letter from the head of the American Chemistry Council’s Formaldehyde Panel that warns of “irreparable harm to the companies represented by the Panel.” In 2021, when the Biden administration was in office and EPA un-suspended the formaldehyde assessment process, recent EPA retiree Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta gave The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner more details about Trump appointees who interfered with the assessment’s progress.
Reed calls the long-delayed release of the formaldehyde assessment “a victory for scientific integrity,” and it certainly does represent an important step forward. Once this assessment is finalized, EPA can begin the lengthy process of issuing or updating regulations to account for the health risks that the agency has officially recognized. Once regulators slog through the latest iterations of industry efforts to forestall public health protections, and if the rules withstand the inevitable court challenges, these regulations will save lives and spare many families from the suffering that cancer diagnoses bring. But we’re still looking at years of unnecessary suffering and loss of life because of politically motivated delays.
Formaldehyde is far from the only substance to be the subject of politically motivated suppression, and it won’t be the last. Cutting off avenues that industry groups use to stall regulation is essential if we’re going to solve public health problems like climate change and exposure to toxic chemicals. A couple of tools that are in the works could help. One is the framework for scientific integrity policies that the Task Force for Scientific Integrity is developing in response to President Biden’s “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking,” which he signed during his first week in office. Another is the Scientific Integrity Act, which Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) reintroduced in Congress last year and which would require agencies to have scientific integrity policies. If agencies like EPA have strong policies that prohibit interference with scientific work products, employees who see their work being buried will have more recourse to sound the alarm and – if there are strong enforcement mechanisms that work effectively – get assessments and other work products moving again. And then we could have a little more confidence that our federal agencies are helping to protect the quality of our environments.
Liz Borkowski is a contributor to the public health blog The Pump Handle. She is managing editor of Women’s Health Issues, the peer-reviewed journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, and a researcher in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.