Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Is Set to Retreat in Fight to Curb Carcinogen ; Testing Rules Eased after Industry Takes Aim at Limits on Formaldehyde

Newspaper article International New York Times

U.S. Is Set to Retreat in Fight to Curb Carcinogen ; Testing Rules Eased after Industry Takes Aim at Limits on Formaldehyde

Article excerpt

The E.P.A.'s effort to adopt rules on formaldehyde offers an example of how industry opposition can delay and hamper attempts to issue regulations.

A decade after emergency trailers meant to shelter Hurricane Katrina victims instead caused burning eyes, sore throats and other more serious ailments, the Environmental Protection Agency is on the verge of regulating the culprit: formaldehyde, a chemical that can be found in commonplace things like clothes and furniture.

But an unusual assortment of players, including furniture makers, the Chinese government, Republicans from states with a large base of furniture manufacturing and even some Democrats who championed early regulatory efforts, have questioned the E.P.A. proposal. The sustained opposition has held sway, as the agency is now preparing to ease main testing requirements before it releases the landmark federal health standard.

The E.P.A.'s five-year effort to adopt this rule offers another example of how industry opposition can delay and hamper attempts by the federal government to issue regulations, even to control substances known to be harmful to human health.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that can also cause respiratory ailments like asthma, but the potential of long-term exposure to cause cancers like myeloid leukemia is less well understood.

The E.P.A.'s decision would be the first regulation by the federal government of formaldehyde inside most American homes.

"The stakes are high for public health," said Tom Neltner, senior adviser for regulatory affairs at the National Center for Healthy Housing, who has closely monitored the debate over the rules. "What we can't have here is an outcome that fails to confront the health threat we all know exists."

The proposal would not ban formaldehyde -- commonly used as an ingredient in wood glue in furniture and flooring -- but it would impose rules that prevent dangerous levels of the chemical's vapors from those products, and would set testing standards to ensure that products sold in the United States comply with those limits. The debate has sharpened in the face of growing concern about the safety of formaldehyde-treated flooring imported from Asia, especially China.

What is certain is that a lot of money is at stake: American companies sell billions of dollars' worth of wood products each year that contain formaldehyde, and some argue that the proposed regulation would impose unfair costs and restrictions.

Determined to block the agency's rule as proposed, these industry players have turned to the White House, members of Congress and top E.P.A. officials, pressing them to roll back the testing requirements in particular, calling them redundant and too expensive.

"There are potentially over a million manufacturing jobs that will be impacted if the proposed rule is finalized without changes," Bill Perdue, the chief lobbyist at the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a leading critic of the testing requirements in the proposed regulation, wrote in one letter to the E.P.A.

Industry opposition helped create an odd alignment of forces working to thwart the rule. The White House moved to strike out major aspects of the proposal. Subsequent appeals for more changes were voiced by players as varied as Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, and Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, as well as furniture industry lobbyists.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina helped start the public debate over formaldehyde, after the deadly storm destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes along the Gulf of Mexico, forcing families into temporary trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Those displaced by the storm quickly began reporting respiratory problems, burning eyes and other issues, and tests then confirmed high levels of formaldehyde fumes leaking into the air inside the trailers, which in many cases had been hastily constructed. …

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