Olshan, Rusyn serve on NRC committee on formaldehyde

April 21, 2011
A panel of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council has finalized a report evaluating the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assessment of formaldehyde, a chemical commonly used in industry and medicine throughout the world. The report found that many conclusions reached by the EPA were sound and appropriate. However, the panel also was critical of some of the EPA’s conclusions about the toxicity of formaldehyde, and about the process used for developing these risk assessments.
Two UNC public health faculty members were part of the 15-person committee that has said the EPA’s draft assessment of the potential health effects associated with formaldehyde exposure needs substantial revision to justify some of its conclusions that formaldehyde may cause leukemia and several other health problems, including asthma and infertility in women. The review panel did find that the EPA sufficiently supported its conclusions that formaldehyde can irritate eyes, noses and throats and cause respiratory lesions. It also backed EPA’s conclusion that formaldehyde exposure causes cancer in the nose and upper throat, findings sufficient for classification of this agent as a known human carcinogen.
Dr. Ivan Rusyn (left) and Dr. Andy Olshan

Dr. Ivan Rusyn (left) and Dr. Andy Olshan

Andrew Olshan, PhD, chair of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, was a vice-chair of the panel. “The potential for formaldehyde to cause adverse health effects has been a subject of intense research,” Olshan said. “Still, the body of evidence for some of the diseases that have been associated with formaldehyde exposure is quite diverse and controversial, making the EPA’s task of drawing firm conclusions challenging.”

Ivan Rusyn, professor of environmental sciences and engineering, agreed. “While there is little doubt that high concentrations of formaldehyde are hazardous to the tissues that are in contact during inhalation or other exposure, there are a number of significant gaps in our knowledge on the potential of formaldehyde to cause effects at distant sites,” he said.
Until the ongoing EPA assessment is finalized, EPA will continue to list formaldehyde as a “probable” carcinogen and will not be able to set more stringent standards on the chemical.
Formaldehyde is used in the production of some plastics and resins, such as those commonly used in permanent adhesives for plywood and carpeting. It is used in the resin added to sanitary paper products such as facial tissue, table napkins, and roll towels to make them stronger when wet. The textile industry uses formaldehyde-based resins as finishers to make fabrics crease-resistant.
Formaldehyde-based materials also are key to the manufacture of automobiles, and used to make components for the transmission, electrical system, engine block, door panels, axles and brake shoes.
Safety of formaldehyde exposure has received widespread public attention since trailers and mobile homes, used by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) to house people displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and by the 2008 flooding in Iowa, were found to contain unhealthy levels of formaldehyde in the air inside the trailers. Some of the people who moved into the trailers complained of breathing difficulties, nosebleeds, and persistent headaches. Formaldehyde-catalyzed resins were used in the production of these homes.
More information is available online.

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.