US National Institutes Of Health Confirms Cancer Risk Of Formaldehyde Exposure: Katrina Redux

Unsold recreational vehicles. Image credit via:OregonLive, Jamie Francis/The Oregonian, excerpted.

Last week was the deadline for those still living in FEMA-provided "Katrina Trailers" to move out. As tragic as being kicked out of one's home is, especially while jobs are so few, the decision by FEMA to turn remaining trailer residents out may be a blessing in disguise. As this post headline states, a large, extended NIH study of "workers employed at plants that used or produced formaldehyde continue to show a possible link between formaldehyde exposure and death from cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, particularly myeloid leukemia." These were workers making molded-plastic products, decorative laminates, and plywood - as may be found in house trailers.

Since the 1980s, NCI has studied cancer deaths among a group of 25,619 workers, predominately white males, who were employed before 1966 in 10 industrial plants that produced formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin and that used the chemical to produce molded-plastic products, decorative laminates, photographic film, or plywood. In a previous report from this study, which included data on cancer deaths through 1994, researchers showed that the risk of death from leukemias (myeloid leukemia in particular) increased with higher levels of formaldehyde exposure.

In this report, which includes an average follow-up of over 40 years, researchers found a statistically significant association between death from all blood and lymphatic cancers combined and peak formaldehyde exposure. Workers with the highest peak exposures had a 37 percent increased risk of death compared to those with the lowest level of peak exposures. This represents an excess risk of death from several specific cancers, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and myeloid leukemia — the type most often associated with chemical exposure.

How could it be fair to compare the occupational health risks of factory workers, exposed up to 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, to very high formaldehyde levels, with persons living in trailers built with "molded-plastic products, decorative laminates, and plywood?"

Here's how: FEMA Trailers Optimizing Formaldehyde Exposure.

The risk studied by NIH is fundamentally a design problem.

Likely, millions of formaldehyde-laced trailers were built since the 1960's and many of them are still in service. New trailers and RV's are still being assembled; though, right now, the unsold inventory lots are busting at the seams (per the photo). Thus, it is not just a matter of residential or recreational use exposure: production workers continue to be exposed to high levels of formaldehyde.

A classic example of free market failure.
The trailer and "modular home" industries could change their design specs, voluntarily requiring suppliers to provide materials with significantly lowered off-gassing potential, at higher cost.

Congress could do one or more of the following: 1.) mandate changes in resins used, and/or reduced off-gassing rates from residential construction materials and furnishings; or, 2.) require EPA develop a performance standard for indoor air quality in dwellings with high surface area to volume ratios; or, 3.) mandate OSHA implement stringent exposure controls and workplace monitoring. These measures all would benefit workers, as well as end-use customers.

Who wants to bet on a voluntary approach working anytime soon (enough to be ready for the next hurricane disaster)?

Where would the push-back against a regulatory approach come from?
Well, the particle board industry would go berserk over a requirement to switch to formaldehyde-free binding agents. Urea-formaldehyde resin supplying chemical companies would not be happy either. But the most politically important push-back would likely come from states like Indiana, where the manufacturing of RV's and modular homes is a predominant source of employment.

Is there an interim solution for standing stock of trailers?
It's stupid to claim that opening windows solves the problem. Not when it's 100 in the shade and humid. Not when it's raining or snowing or cold outside. Possibly, though, air to air heat exchange devices, designed to keep ventilation rates up without wasting energy, could offer an interim solution - so that otherwise-useful trailers don't become landfill or fuel for incinerators.

Continuous formaldehyde monitoring devices with alert capability wouldn't be a bad idea either.

More posts on FEMA trailers and formaldehyde.
FEMA Ignored or Buried Formaldehyde Research
FEMA Formaldehyde Fiasco Festers
How CDC bungled FEMA Formaldehyde
FEMA Daleks Prepare For 2008 Hurricane Season: Formaldehyde ...
FEMA Trailers Had Too Much Particle Board, Too Little Ventilation ...
Industry & Enviros to EPA: Regulate Formaldehyde