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How Senator Vitter Battled the EPA Over Formaldehyde’s Link to Cancer

How Senator Vitter Battled the EPA Over Formaldehyde’s Link to Cancer

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Published by Peggy Satterfield
As long as the studies continue, the EPA will still list formaldehyde as a "probable" rather than a "known" carcinogen, even though three major scientific reviews now link it to leukemia and have strengthened its ties to other forms of cancer. The chemical industry is fighting to avoid that designation, because it could lead to tighter regulations and require costly pollution controls.
As long as the studies continue, the EPA will still list formaldehyde as a "probable" rather than a "known" carcinogen, even though three major scientific reviews now link it to leukemia and have strengthened its ties to other forms of cancer. The chemical industry is fighting to avoid that designation, because it could lead to tighter regulations and require costly pollution controls.

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Published by: Peggy Satterfield on Jan 12, 2013
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06/11/2015

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How Senator Vitter Battled the EPA Over
Formaldehyde’s Link to Cancer
 
 by Joaquin Sapien  ProPublica, April 15, 2010, 2:30 a.m.When Sen. David Vitter persuaded the EPA to agree to yet another review of its long-delayedassessment of the health risks of formaldehyde, he was praised by companies that use or manufacture a chemical found in everything from plywood to carpet.As long as the studies continue, the EPA will still list formaldehyde as a "probable" rather than a"known" carcinogen, even though three major scientific reviews now link it to leukemia andhave strengthened its ties to other forms of cancer. The chemical industry is fighting to avoid thatdesignation, because it could lead to tighter regulations and require costly pollution controls."Delay means money. The longer they can delay labeling something a known carcinogen, themore money they can make," said James Huff, associate director for chemical carcinogenesis atthe National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in the Department of Health andHuman Services.
Timeline: Formaldehyde's Convoluted Review
1989 The first health assessment of 
formaldehyde
is written by the EPA.1998 The EPA begins updating the assessment.2004Despite preliminary findings from a
National Cancer Institute
study linkingformaldehyde to leukemia,
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla
., persuades the EPA todelay a planned revision of the formaldehyde health assessment.May 2009The
National Cancer Institute
releases new results in its ongoing health study,showing that workers exposed to a higher amount of formaldehyde had a
78percent greater risk of leukemia
than those exposed to lower amounts.June 29,2009
Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
, urges the EPA to let the
National Academy of Sciences
 review the formaldehyde assessment, a process that usually requires more time andmoney than the EPA's own external peer review panel.September 2009The
International Agency for Research on Cancer
and the
National ToxicologyProgram
, a U.S. organization, both conclude that formaldehyde exposure is linkedto leukemia.Sept. 23,2009
Vitter
says he will delay the nomination of a senior EPA official until the EPAagrees to send the formaldehyde assessment to the National Academy.
The EPAsays the chemical doesn't need more review
.Dec. 23,2009
The EPA agrees to Vitter’s demand
, and Vitter releases his hold on the EPAnominee. The EPA says it asked the National Academy to move quickly, so thereview could be done in about the same amount of time it would have taken for an
 
internal review.
The EPA’s chemical risk assessments are crucial to protecting the public’s health because theyare the government’s most comprehensive analysis of the dangers the chemicals present and are
used as the scientific foundation for state and federal regulations. But it usually takes years or even decades to get an assessment done, or to revise one that is outdated. Often the industry
spends millions on lobbying and on scientific studies that counter the government’s conclusions.
 The EPA has been trying since 1998 to update the formaldehyde assessment,which was first
written in 1989. But the agency’s efforts have repeatedly been stalled by the industry and
Congress.This time, the resistance came from Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana, where,ironically, thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims say they suffered respiratory problems after  being housed in government trailers contaminated with formaldehyde. Last year Vitter blockedthe nomination of a key EPA official until the agency agreed to ask the National Academy of 
Sciences to weigh in on the assessment. Vitter’s spokesman, Joel DiGrado, told the media that
"because of the FEMA trailer debacle, we need to get absolutely reliable information to the public about formaldehyde risk as soon as possible."
Vitter’s ties to the formaldehyde industry are well known. According to 
Talking Points Memo, his election campaign received about $20,500 last year from companies that produce largeamounts of formaldehyde waste in Louisiana. But ProPublica found that Vitter actually took innearly twice that amount if contributions from other companies, trade groups and lobbyists withinterests in formaldehyde regulation are included. Among those contributors is Charles Grizzle, atop-paid lobbyist for the Formaldehyde Council, an industry trade group that had long sought a  National Academy review of the chemical.Congress stalled the formaldehyde risk assessment once before. In 2004, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.,  persuaded (PDF) the EPA to delay it, even though preliminary findings from a National Cancer Institute study had already linked formaldehyde to leukemia. Inhofe insisted that the EPAwait for a more "robust set of findings" from the institute.
Koch Industries, a large chemical manufacturer and one of Inhofe’s biggest campaign
contributors, gaveInhofe $6,000 that year. That same year Koch  bought two pulp mills from Georgia-
Pacific, a major formaldehyde producer and one of the world’s largest plywood
manufacturers. The next year Koch bought all of Georgia-Pacific.
 
 Sen. James Inhofe persuaded the EPA to delay its formaldehyde risk assessment in 2004. (GettyImages file photo)
The "more robust" findings that Inhofe asked for weren’t released until five years later – 
in May2009
 – 
and they reinforced the 2004 findings. Of the nearly 25,000 workers the National Cancer  Institute had tracked for 30 years, those exposed to higher amounts of formaldehyde had a 37 percent greater risk of death from blood and lymphatic cancers and a 78 percent greater risk of leukemia than those exposed to lower amounts.The Formaldehyde Council immediately released a statement disputing those findings and calling for a full review by the National Academy of Sciences. Such an evaluation could take aslong as four years, according to an EPA spokesperson.But this tim
e it wasn’t Inhofe who stepped in on the industry’s behalf, but Vitter, who like Inhofe
sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee.On the day the study came out, Grizzle, the Formaldehyde Council lobbyist, donated $2,400 to
Vitter’s re
-election campaign, the maximum an individual can give to a federal candidate in a
single election cycle. Grizzle didn’t respond to phone calls and e
-mails asking for comment for this story.Grizzle started his own lobbying firm in 1993, after serving as an EPA assistant administrator inthe late 1980s. He joined George W
. Bush’s 
$500,000 for Bush’s 2004 campaign, earnin
g the title of fundraising "pioneer." A PhiladelphiaInquirer  investigation found that Grizzle used his friendship with Bush aide Karl Rove to help get Stephen Johnson the job as assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticidesand Toxic Substances at EPA. When Johnson went on to lead the EPA, he changed the risk assessment system so other federal agencies could comment more frequently and forcefully on
the EPA’s science, a move that prolonged the process. In the waning days of the Bush
administration, Johnson asked the National Academy of Sciences to do a full review of theformaldehyde assessment.

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