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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 11:50 EDT

Formaldehyde Listed As Cancer Causing Agent

June 12, 2011

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) and National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) official “Report on Carcinogens” had an additional eight commonly used substances added to it, after health officials said they may put people at an increased risk of developing cancer.

HHS on Friday added the industrial chemical formaldehyde and a botanical substance known as aristolochic acids to that list. Two other compounds, including certain glass wool fibers and styrene — used in Styrofoam — were added to the list as substances “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen.” The list also included captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide, o-nitrotoluene and riddelliine.

Formaldehyde had already been listed on a previous report, but has now been upgraded as a “known carcinogen” as it has been found to cause nasal cancer in rats. Formaldehyde is found in a wide range of products including plastics, synthetic fibers and textile finishes.

In a report prepared for the Secretary of the HHS, researchers working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warned that people with higher exposure to formaldehyde were more at risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia and other types of cancers.

Aristolochic acid may cause cancer of the urinary tract and permanent kidney failure, the report stated. It is commonly used in traditional Chinese herbal remedies and in some weight-loss herbal supplements.

The government says that styrene is a component of tobacco smoke, and NIH says the greatest exposure to styrene comes from smoking cigarettes.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) lashed out against the report, saying it was concerned that politics may have corrupted the scientific process.

“Today’s report by HHS made unfounded classifications of both formaldehyde and styrene and will unnecessarily alarm consumers,” Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the ACC, told Reuters in a statement.

Jennifer Sass of the National Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group, applauded the government for releasing the report in the face of what she described as pressure from chemical companies to prevent it from being publicized.

“The chemical industry fought the truth, the science, and the public — but, in the end our government experts came through for us, giving the public accurate information about the health risks from chemicals that are commonly found in our homes, schools, and workplaces,” Sass wrote in a blog.

A warning by the US Food and Drug Administration a decade ago advised consumers to discontinue using botanical products containing aristolochic acids. But they are still widely available on the Internet and abroad.

The report said, however, that the listed substances do not always cause cancer. It mainly depends on the length and type of exposure and a person’s genetic makeup. The American Cancer Society estimates that only about 6 percent of cancers are related to environmental causes and most of that is on-the-job occupational exposure.

The report is available at ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.