EPA Can Keep Formaldehyde Assessment Under Wraps 

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For Immediate Release:  Monday, June 21, 2021
Contact:  Kirsten Stade

EPA Can Keep Formaldehyde Assessment Under Wraps

Under Recent Supreme Court Ruling, EPA May Withhold Entire Report

Washington, DC — The public is not entitled to see a long overdue health assessment of formaldehyde, one of the most widely used industrial chemicals, according to a  ruling by a federal district court judge in a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  A version of a health assessment for formaldehyde that had been close to release has been withheld by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2018.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical that is highly concentrated for a wide variety of commercial uses, such as wood composites, glues, paints, primers, and preservatives. Concentrated formaldehyde is toxic to humans. Inhalation is associated with a variety of cancers, such as leukemia. EPA’s last completed health assessment for formaldehyde was in 1990.

The current effort to update EPA’s understanding of formaldehyde’s toxicity has traveled a tortured path, with a draft released in 2010, then reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, and a re-review begun in 2014. This new draft assessment was finished in 2017, as confirmed by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in congressional testimony.

After Pruitt’s testimony, PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the assessment.  When EPA declined to produce the assessment, PEER filed suit. In a June 18, 2021, ruling, D.C. Beryl Howell, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, held that EPA could continue to withhold the assessment, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding the scope of the FOIA exemption for “draft documents.”

“So much for the Biden EPA’s promise to act transparently,” remarked PEER Staff Counsel Kevin Bell, pointing to a pledge by the new EPA Administrator Michael Regan to operate as in a “fishbowl.”  “EPA has met with the chemical industry about this assessment but has yet to share anything of substance with the public.”

Meanwhile, the status of the long overdue assessment on formaldehyde remains murky. On March 26, 2021, EPA announced that its assessment of formaldehyde had been “unsuspended” and that “a public milestone timeline” for the formaldehyde assessment would be provided this month, but no such announcement has yet been made.

“The reason for concern is that millions of workers and consumers may be subjected to dangerous levels of formaldehyde,” added Bell.  “It has been more than 30 years since EPA completed any assessment of the safe exposure levels for formaldehyde. At the current rate, it will be several more years before EPA is likely to provide any assistance in protecting workers and consumers from unsafe and potentially lethal levels of exposure.”


Read the court ruling

Revisit the PEER suit

View the Regan “fishbowl” memo

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