Formaldehyde exists in nature; we breathe it out, and it is found in wood and even in apples. It also is a recognized carcinogen in larger doses than you get in nature. Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times about how the industry is doing everything it can to squelch any study of the stuff by killing the Report on Carcinogens that comes out every two years.
He concludes by comparing the industry tactics to those used with asbestos:
The American Chemistry Council first got its pals in Congress to order a $1 million follow-up study on formaldehyde and styrene. Then it demanded, through a provision drafted by Representative Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican, that no money be spent on another Report on Carcinogens until the follow-up was completed — meaning a four-year delay until the next report. Stay tuned for an industry effort to slip some such provision into the next budget legislation.
The basic strategy is an old one. As David Michaels notes in his book “Doubt Is Their Product,” the first evidence that asbestos causes cancer emerged in the 1930s. But three decades later, industry executives were still railing about “ill-informed and exaggerated” press reports, still covering up staggering cancer rates, and still denouncing regulation of asbestos as “premature.” Huge numbers of Americans today are dying as a result.
The industry is on the counter-attack, calling formaldehyde "a natural part of our world." So is radon and arsenic, but that doesn't mean we go out of our way to build our houses with them in it. With formaldehyde we do; it is the glue that holds together our particleboard and plywood. Deborah Blum at Wired thinks Kristof is being simplistic.
Kristof’s oversimplification of the formaldehyde issue offers an clear example of why chemical manufacturers tend to be, let’s say, somewhat wary. Throwing out the word “carcinogen” without making any effort to explain that the research involved is tricky, complicated, and often contradictory is just playing the chemophobia scare card.
But let's talk simplistic here for a minute. The industry association, (which has direct ties right back to everybody's favourite Koch brothers) say that it is highly regulated and perfectly safe at approved levels.
Yet by their own data, normal interior conditions hit up against the WHO guidelines, and polluted indoor conditions exceed it. What happens in a new house that meets much tighter air infiltration standards? What happens when you build the thing out of new particle board and then seal it up tight as a drum? Note that this is a logarithmic graph, so the concentration is going up fast.
The fact of the matter is, this stuff shouldn't be in your house. It is a carcinogen at higher doses, and the housing industry is building boxes that seem to be designed to concentrate it. Kristof may be a bit dramatic but he isn't wrong.