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Despite Industry Pressure, Government Cancer Report Finally Released

Jennifer Sass

Posted June 10, 2011 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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Today the government released its 12th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) - naming styrene and formaldehyde as among the chemicals that are known (formaldehyde) or reasonably anticipated (styrene) to cause cancer in humans (see the media announcement here). This is a really big deal, because the chemical industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent these assessments - actually to prevent the whole report - from being finalized. It’s been held up for four years by industry interference, but the public has a right to know about the chemical risks that are foisted upon us through air and water pollution, off-gassing from consumer products, inadequate or unenforced regulations, etc. (see NRDC's Dr. Janssen's blog on chemical reform here)

The 12th RoC formaldehyde classification of a known human carcinogen is consistent with the determination by the World Health Organization, EPA, and a recent National Academies review (see my blog here for details and links). Specifically, all these prestigious scientific bodies identified cancer risks of the nasal cavity, and some types of leukemia. It was the leukemia risks that the chemical industry fought so hard against, even though the evidence comes from human epidemiology of industrial workers and embalmers. In fact, industry has used political pressure to hold up EPA's scientific assessment for 13 years, since 1998, and it's still in draft form.

Styrene has been tied up in similar political knots. Styrene is used to manufacture many plastics, latex paints, synthetic rubbers, polyesters and coatings. It is also approved for use in food-contact materials, and as an FDA-approved synthetic flavoring in ice cream and candy (see 12th RoC fact sheet here, and EPA fact sheet here).  It is regulated as a Hazardous Air Pollutant by EPA, and considered possibly carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization. EPA has been trying to update its styrene assessment since 1998, with no end in sight.

Atrazine, a toxic pesticide that is associated with birth defects in people, and in lab animal studies has been shown to cause cancer and impaired reproductive and immune development, was not listed in the 12th RoC after significant industry pressure (see letters from the grain growers here and from Syngenta, the chemical manufacturer here). More about atrazine harms is here.

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.

What we really need to prevent this from continuing to happen is a chemical regulatory law that works to ensure safe use of chemicals BEFORE, not after they are sold to us. I hope you can support reform of our Nation's chemical law, called TSCA (more information here).



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Evan LipsonJun 11 2011 07:02 AM

Dr. Sass - I generally avoid eating off of styrofoam, especially when food or drink is hot. I much prefer dishware made of glass. Am I going overboard?

Jennifer SassJun 11 2011 08:54 AM

Hi Evan. Thanks for your comment. I take the same precautions as you do - so maybe we are both going overboard? The levels are small from this source, but easy to avoid, so why not avoid it.

The bigger concerns are worker exposures during manufacturing of products with styrene, and the end-life breakdown of all those styrofoam and styrene products. So, avoiding the use of styrofoam will reduce this source of pollution.

The 12th RoC fact sheet on styrene also points out that cigarette smoke has styrene - something to avoid for lots of reasons.

Jennifer SassJun 11 2011 10:05 AM

A link to the NY Times story on this is here:

annonymousJun 11 2011 01:26 PM

Link copy-paste error? The links in this sentence, the last two are the same link. The second link is to the Syngenta letter. The third link is to the same document, where I expected a paper on atrazine harm that would balance Syngenta's claim. Imagine my surprise seeing Syngenta in both the "for" and "against" links!

"(see letters from the grain growers >1here2here3here


Diane RiversJun 11 2011 03:35 PM


Excellent piece.....

We don't trust the EPA nor the NYState Department of Enviornmental Conservations, they have been aware of so many chemical pesticide exposures and other harmfull chemical exposures that caused permanent injuries to its many victims and failed to enforce state and federal laws and allowed complaints to languish, shoddy violations with no enforcement of any kind, while the companies that harm the public continue to get away with it....and continue to harm the public. We are moving forward with a report against both these agencies, which exposes the cover-up that took place as well as a documentary as to why the government fails to enforce, instead cover-up' while millions of people are put in harms way...Corruption and Cover-up is alive and well in the good old USA

Jennifer SassJun 11 2011 06:33 PM

Dear Anonymous - thanks, I fixed the link. Much appreciated.

Dear Diane Rivers - thanks for your comments, and keep up the good work!

Evan IvieJun 13 2011 08:31 AM

It is becoming obvious that we need to do more in this country to identify and discourage the use of carcinogens. What can I do to support responsible people in the government and to make corporate America more responsible for their actions?
(another) Evan

guestJun 13 2011 11:05 AM

Remember asbestos? It was marketed and not tested or monitored. Styrene or any chemical is TOXIC in certain quantities. Pipe relining with compounded resin (30%+ styrene) and catalyst systems are heated or activated to produce a coating in water, wastewater and stormwater pipes. These so called "green technologies" go un-monitored and produce styrene concentrations in air up to 450 Ppm! Water concentrations have been recorded at 185 Ppm! Homes, businesses and fish kills have been a result of 50 Ppm and less. There are technologies available to control emissions but the contractors won't use them to save a penny or use the excuse that it is not in the specifications even though there are federal clean water regulations and NPDES permit limitations. The ironic part is that some of these projects are funded by the Clean Water Funds, EPA approved with Federal/State dollars. Styrene must be monitored during cure and final releases! Search: "trenchless styrene" or, companies continue to release toxics proclaiming that these chemicals degrade rapidly and are not harmful or that the quantites released are "low" without any monitoring or documentation. Companies will perform their own testing when an incident occurs instead of a third party that have an interest for the public safety. Search: "" Styrene is a preferred product for reliable end products IF used correctly. As for any chemical, the amount released in a public environment depends on the health of the recipient. Health conditions of the elderly, children and personal medical conditions of the individuals are unknown when these contractors are lining public pipes and all that we can ask is that safeguards are in place and written into the specifications. The same hold true for stormwater pipe coatings, monitoring is essential as the styrene residuals flow into surface waters over a period of time. BPA epoxies will be reccommended to line pipes by some contractors as the "freindly non-styrenated alternative" even for potable water line applications!! and
So which is better? Styrene or BPA coating? Curing, the conditions of the application and good engineering controls and specifications are essential. When we look at styrofoam cups, the emmisions are minute compared to pipe coatings applied insitu. Who is at falt? Contractors? Consulting Engineers? Municipalities that approved these projects? Goverment agencies that approved the projects? There are specifications in place by a few municipalities, however, many still ignore public and environment exposure events
It magically dissapeared. the law of physics do not apply to pipe relining contractors. Do these styrene concentrations matabolize to Styrene Oxide (a known carcinogen)? I suppose it all depends on what chemical is tested in the sampling.
Contractors that have a spill or continue to release toxics into the air and water will get the next contract due to "low bid award". With the current technologies available for treating styrene odors and effluents, there is no need to be evacuated from your house except due to contractor negligence. Current projects NYC, NY State, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Jersey. Styrene is a Hazmat controlled substance. Limits for public emissions is based on the affect it has on the individual and NOT the OSHA concentrations which is based on the worker exposure. OSHA has no regulatory involvement to public or environmental fugitive emission concentrations. The plastics industry has made great efforts to stay under the radar in the pipe rehabiliation market due to the growth in this industry over the past 40 years. Is it about jobs or continuing to make small profits over worker, public and environmental safety? These jobs are low bid awarded as mentioned, costs for controls and monitoring would be minimal if all are requested to bid on the same quality control line item.
Styrene: take the test in the right place: heavier than air lighter than water.

Jen SassJun 13 2011 12:34 PM

Dear Evan Ivie - the most important thing we can do right now to prevent unsafe chemical exposures is to reform our Federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Go to the website below and "Take Action" to support this work:

Dear Guest - thanks for the great info on Styrene. Good points!

R RiveterJun 17 2011 09:55 AM

OK, so now it's officials. The government acknowledges that these chemicals cause cancer. Why are they still legal?? Isn't that the main question?

barnaby ruheJun 17 2011 05:27 PM

benzene toluene xylene borium strontium etc in wastefrackwater soon to be released in Penna groundwater, as per EPA regs!! which limit liability of FrackWell to 1000 feet and 6 months!! what with a million gallons toxicwastewater per frackwell... sitting in a ditch lined with 4mm garbage bag plastic sheeting! about to degrade in, oh right, 7 months! you can't prove we killed you! home free Frackers. who wrote that reg??

VanyaJun 17 2011 11:56 PM

What about Roundup? A significant increase in cancer is found in a village in Nilgiris where water has been contaminated by it

Jonathan RamlowJun 18 2011 03:43 AM

It's worth noting a few things. One is that formaldehyde was classified as a known human carcinogen in 2004 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004. This finding was reported in an IARC press release dated June, 2004. On the other hand, the NTP's 11th Report on Carcinogens, released in January, 2005, did not report the same finding, even though all the data that were available to IARC in 2004 were available to the NTP at the same time. Just as IARC frequently defers to NTP findings and reports in certain matters, NTP could certainly return the favor. Curiously, the 11th RoC, from 2005, is not now available for reading online or downloading; a brief fact sheet is still available, and it contains the following informative disclaimer:

"The RoC is a scientific and public health document first ordered by Congress in 1978 to educate both the public and health professionals in the recognition that many cancers are apparently induced by chemicals in the home, the workplace, the general environment and from the use of certain drugs. It is important to understand that the RoC identifies potential cancer hazards. A listing in the RoC does not by itself establish that a substance presents a cancer risk to an individual in daily life. It is also important to note that the RoC does not address or attempt to balance potential benefits of exposures to certain carcinogenic substances in special situations. For example, numerous anti-cancer drugs have been shown to increase the occurrence of secondary cancers. In these instances, the benefits of exposure to the drugs for treatment or prevention of a specific disease outweigh the additional cancer risks associated with their use. People should not make decisions concerning the use of a given drug, or any other listed agent, based solely on the information contained in the RoC. Decisions of this type should be made only after consulting with a physician or other appropriate specialist about both risks and benefits."

I have known some of the folks at the NTP as professional colleagues in the past, and I have no reason to doubt their view in the paragraph above. Nor do I doubt their current relative certainty about formaldehyde, especially since IARC made, and widely publicized, it's formaldehyde classification seven years ago. Personally, I have always found the IARC Monograph series to be painstaking, thorough, detailed, and authoritative. Moreover, all IARC Monographs are readily accessible on their site, so it's possible to trace the evolution of thinking iver time among IARC's scientific experts with respect to all of the chemical, biological, and physical agents ever under review because of suspected carcinogenicity.

One other thing worth noting, by the way, is the substantial numbers of viruses, drugs, and physical agents on the NTP's lists of known and reasonably anticipated known human carcinogens. Many of these can and do cause far more new cases of and deaths from relatively common cancers than formaldehyde causes of relatively uncommon upper respiratory cancers. It's also true that for cigarette smokers, formaldehyde exposure by that route is more significant than all other environmental exposures. Yet cigarette smoking is lamentably still legal [N.B.: R Riveter]. What would be really great would be to put the tobacco industry out of business once and for all, but I'm not holding my breath [no pun or any other sort of humor intended] about that one. The American Cancer Societies annual "Facts And Figures" publication provides a crystal clear picture of how the epidemiology of cancer would be changed forever were tobacco smoking consigned to the historical scrap-heap.

Tom ToogoodJun 19 2011 06:34 AM

Dr Sass and other toxin-fighters, congratulations from Australia on your campaigns and solid information, we have similar problems "down under". Also Dr Sass, regarding styrene foam boxes, I run a social jstice outreach for our
church helping low income families grow their
own fresh produce in free, recycled foam boxes. They make wonderfuly well insulated containers to keep the soil or potting mix at a root-friendly moderate temperature.
But, please advise, as the box sides are in constant contact with the moist soil and roots, is eating the vegetables a health risk for our needy clients?

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