Why Is the Small Business Administration Arguing that Formaldehyde Doesn’t Cause Cancer?

The Small Business Administration (SBA) is supposed to protect the interests of small businesses – businesses most Americans define as employing fewer than 100 workers. But a little-known office in the SBA, the Office of Advocacy, has recently weighed in with the National Toxicology Program (NTP), urging that it scrap a congressionally mandated Report on Carcinogens and challenging NTP’s designation of formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. The NTP report is not a regulatory document. It does not directly affect small business costs. So what is the Office of Advocacy at the SBA doing objecting to a scientific report on carcinogens?

By way of background: the Public Health Service Act, passed in 1978, established the National Toxicology Program and required that it publish a biennial report listing substances that may cause cancer. Over the years, large chemical manufacturers have vigorously protested every time NTP proposes to list a chemical as a carcinogen, fearing that the market for the chemical will shrink. Until recently, small business concerns haven't factored into the debate. Therefore, the SBA has no obvious interest in this issue or any scientific expertise to add to the debate.

Or so we thought. But the recent comments SBA sent to NTP questioned the quality of the scientific analysis on which the report relies. SBA specifically highlighted the listing of formaldehyde as a "known human carcinogen," arguing in congressional testimony that NTP’s listing of formaldehyde as a possible cancer-causing agent might increase small businesses' workers’ compensation costs. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has regulated formaldehyde as a carcinogen since 1987, so the increase in workers’ compensation costs related to formaldehyde would have been rising for quite some time.

Interestingly, the concerns raised by the SBA Office of Advocacy are almost indistinguishable from the objections formaldehyde manufacturers have raised whenever a government agency has proposed to publicize formaldehyde's cancer-causing potential. Formaldehyde is a high production volume chemical; in 2004, international production was over 46 billion pounds. Leading producers of formaldehyde include DuPont, Georgia-Pacific, and Hoechst Celanese – not your average small businesses. Toxicology tests in the 1970s showed that formaldehyde caused cancer in rats. Ever since, big chemical manufacturers of formaldehyde have waged trench warfare against governmental efforts to warn the public about this effect or protect people from the hazard, following the play book of the tobacco industry.

The chemical companies funded the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology to produce many reports arguing, in essence, that just because formaldehyde caused cancer in rats did not mean it would cause cancer in people, and even if it did, it would not cause too much cancer.

Under the auspices of the Formaldehyde Institute (FI), the manufacturers of the chemical campaigned to stop the government from informing the public that formaldehyde causes cancer. First, FI blocked efforts by the EPA to designate formaldehyde as a carcinogen under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It also persuaded OSHA to fire a scientist who had the audacity to call formaldehyde a carcinogen; then-Rep. Al Gore (D-TN) held an oversight hearing to ensure the scientist kept his job. It pressured OSHA to stall rules regulating formaldehyde use until 1987 when the United Auto Workers took OSHA to court and forced the agency to issue rules on the use of formaldehyde in the workplace. FI also sued to block the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from regulating urea-formaldehyde foam insulation.

These efforts to block government action to protect the public from the cancer risks of formaldehyde were orchestrated by the big chemical companies that manufacture the substance. So how did NTP’s listing of formaldehyde as a "known human carcinogen" become a legitimate issue of concern for a government agency whose mission is to protect small businesses? This is a question Congress might want to investigate.

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