The Environmental Protection Agency is starting its investigation into the health effects of formaldehyde in pressed wood products commonly found in homes, schools and offices by asking experts, the industry and the public for help defining possible risks of exposure.
The issue of formaldehyde exposure drew national attention when FEMA and the CDC allowed high levels of formaldehyde in temporary housing supplied for Hurricane Katrina victims. Many later complained of health problems they associated with the toxic indoor air. As many as 42% of children who were housed in trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have complained of respiratory illnesses that may be linked to formaldehyde exposure.
The EPA agreed to conduct a four-part investigation of the issue several months ago, and it opened a 60-day public comment period, and announced five public hearings, about the potential health risks of formaldehyde late in November, during the Thanksgiving holiday rush. Public meetings have been scheduled in January for Triangle Park, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. The Sierra Club criticized the EPA for failing to schedule a meeting in a Gulf Coast area, where so many have been affected.
The process will define risks and could set new standards for reducing exposure to formaldehyde. Any decision would come in the Obama administration, which experts expect to be much tougher on toxic chemical exposure limits than the Bush Administration has been. Bush has set in motion rule-making procedures to deregulate many toxic chemicals, or otherwise make it more likely that workers and others could be exposed to toxic chemicals, according to myriad reports about the administration's blitz of so-called "midnight regulations" in its last lame-duck months.
The EPA is reviewing formaldehyde, which it already labels a "probable" human carcinogen, only because environmental groups and 5,000 individuals petitioned to make the federal watchdog consider the toxicity of the chemical, common in household products as a preservative, a component of glue or a chemical adding "permanent press" qualities to draperies and clothing.
Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to watery eyes, headaches, depression and even cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS). People with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema have an increased risk of reacting to formaldehyde, which can leach out from plywood, particleboard and fiberboard used in manufactured housing materials, including cabinets, flooring and other wood-based products. Often, it's the glue holding these products together that contains formaldehyde, which "off-gases" over time, so that people can breathe in toxic vapors.
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