US agency calls out Formaldehyde & Styrene for cancer

Tom Lent | June 15, 2011

A two decade lobbying effort by industry has finally ended unsuccessfully with the US Department of Health & Human Service labeling formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. The congressionally mandated 12th Report on Carcinogens adds to assessments by a range of agencies from the state of California to EPA and the World Health Organization confirming the cancer-causing nature of this widely used chemical.  Formaldehyde-based compounds are widely used in building materials -- most often as the glue that binds plywood, particle board, laminates, insulation and other products, but also as additives in drywall and treatments for fabrics. We've reported previously on efforts to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood, the concerns of formaldehyde based binders in insulation and the progress being made to put alternative insulations on the market. Pharos helps you avoid formaldehyde by explicitly flagging its presence in products and allowing filtering of any search results to screen out all products using formaldehyde-based compounds.

While the formaldehyde announcement got the most attention, the styrene listing is arguably at least as important.  Termed "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen" in the report, this is the strongest authoritative assessment of the cancer potential of styrene to be published to date. Styrene already raised concerns for asthma, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption and other health issues, but in Pharos scoring this cancer listing moves styrene from an orange (high concern) to a red (very high concern) flag and may affect toxicity scoring on a range of styrene containing products. Styrene is a building block of EPS and XPS foam insulations which were already under attack for a range of other human and environmental health reasons. Styrene is also used in high performance coatings and may remain as a residual contaminant in the contents of a wide range of Pharos-listed floorings, carpet backings and adhesives that are made of styrene butadiene rubber (SBR).  Click to see Pharos listings of products containing SBR. Remember that you can find product containing any chemical of concern by looking up its record in the Chemical and Material Library and clicking the red "Show products that contain this material" button.

The only easing of pressure on industry from this report came from the slight downgrading of concern for glass wool fibers in insulation, noting that they are less durable and bio-persistent than special purpose fibers and so less likely to cause cancer. Beware of the of glass wool fibers use in high-efficiency air filters and acoustical insulation, however, as those fibers are more likely to cause problems.