An important recent formaldehyde study and President’s Donald Trump’s proposed EPA budget may ultimately determine the scientific information to which we have access about the risk this chemical poses and whether exposure causes leukemia.
We in funeral service consider formaldehyde a critically important ingredient in embalming solutions. We know that formaldehyde is among the most studied of chemicals: between 1981 and 2016, there were twelve important domestic and international agency studies of formaldehyde as a cause of cancer, which suggest that formaldehyde exposure is not without risk.
In the 1980’s, the EPA evaluated the cancer risk posed by formaldehyde exposure under its IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) program. At that time, the EPA concluded that formaldehyde was a probable human carcinogen.
In 2010, the EPA issued a draft toxicological assessment under IRIS, finding that formaldehyde exposure causes leukemia. But, in 2011, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NRC) widely-criticized EPA’s 2010 assessment and EPA withdrew it, leaving in place the now nearly 40-year old IRIS risk assessment.
In February 2018, Dr. Kenneth Mundt, a leading formaldehyde expert, and his team published their evaluation of key new formaldehyde scientific studies, which considered, in light of the NRC findings, whether formaldehyde causes leukemia. The Mundt analysis suggests that the new science shows formaldehyde is not a cause of leukemia. Dr. Mundt noted that EPA now has the opportunity to consider this new science in completing its IRIS evaluation.
Although IRIS assessments are considered the preferred source of risk information used in standard setting and site cleanup decisions by EPA and generally relied upon by state, local, and international health agencies, and other federal agencies, such as OSHA, seven years after the NRC critique, EPA has set no deadline for updating its formaldehyde IRIS risk assessment. To further complicate this limbo, the Trump has proposed to slash the 2019 IRIS budget, cutting it in half.
Whether right or wrong, Trump EPA officials in various areas have expressed skepticism about the worth of science, challenging the views of academics and casting aspersions on the value of science in regulatory decision-making. Yet, in this situation, science supported by industry (the Mundt study was funded in part by Hexion, although no Hexion employees were involved in the article’s preparation) is of value to those who use formaldehyde and formaldehyde-based products, and worthy of EPA’s consideration if the agency were to conduct and complete its IRIS assessment.
And, no matter if or when the EPA issues its revised IRIS assessment of formaldehyde, it is important to recognize the key role that effective ventilation plays in reducing formaldehyde exposure and the associated health risks in the preparation room. NFDA’s report on its study of ventilation, "Formaldehyde Vapor Reduction in the Funeral Home Preparation Room: Recommendations for Effective Preparation Room Ventilation," contains valuable recommendations and practical solutions for implementing an effective ventilation program.