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KRISTOF: The cancer lobby exerts its influence on key list

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to how public health is not always the first consideration when it comes to toxins and dangerous chemicals used in our products and environment.

Who knew that carcinogens had their own lobby in Washington? Don't believe me? Just consider formaldehyde, which is found in everything from nail polish to kitchen countertops, fabric softeners to carpets. Largely because of its use in building materials, we breathe formaldehyde fumes when we're inside our homes.

Just one other fact you should know: According to government scientists, it causes cancer.

The chemical industry is working frantically to suppress that scientific consensus — because it fears "public confusion." Big Chem apparently worries that you might be confused if you learned that formaldehyde caused cancer of the nose and throat and perhaps leukemia as well.

The industry's strategy is to lobby Congress to cut off money for the Report on Carcinogens, a 500-page consensus document published every two years by the National Institutes of Health, containing the best information about what agents cause cancer.

If that sounds like shooting the messenger, well, it is.

"The way the free market is supposed to work is that you have information," said Lynn Goldman, dean of the school of public health at George Washington University. "They're trying to squelch that information."

The larger issue is whether the federal government should be a watchdog for public health or a lap dog for industry. When Mitt Romney denounces President Barack Obama for excessive regulation, these are the kinds of issues at stake.

"Formaldehyde is known to be a human carcinogen," declared the most recent Report on Carcinogens, published in 2011. Previous editions had listed it only as a suspected carcinogen, but the newer report, citing many studies of human and animal exposure to formaldehyde, made the case that it was time to stop equivocating.

The chemical industry was outraged, because it sells lots of formaldehyde that ends up in people's homes, often without their knowledge.

"Nearly all homes had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation," according to a 2009 survey by the California Energy Commission.


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