RISE St. James raises awareness of common sources of formaldehyde exposure and potential risks | Sponsored: Rise St. James

A service program of RISE St. James; Caitlion O. Hunter, Juris Doctor, Class of 2022, Past President, Loyola Environmental Law Society; Tim Schütz, PhD Researcher, Anthropology University of California, Irvine; and the Community Scientist (TCS) research team

After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Louisianans housed in FEMA trailers began complaining of respiratory problems, headaches, and other health issues. Even in the face of reports from their own field agents from 2006, FEMA failed to act. In fact, a FEMA attorney has publicly stated “Do not run any tests…Once you get the results and if they indicate a problem, time is running out for our duty to respond.” It was community organizers and ordinary families who pushed FEMA and Congress to investigate and take action to provide them with safe housing. Incredibly, these same trailers were later offered as accommodation to workers who cleaned up the BP oil spill, although FEMA knew they were still so unsafe they could never be used as accommodation again.

But formaldehyde isn’t just in FEMA trailers. It has been used in the construction of wood products, particularly the glues that hold plywood and particleboard together, for decades. While US standards have regulated the amount of formaldehyde that can be present in building materials since the 1980s, most homes still have low levels of formaldehyde. However, prefabricated homes like caravans and mobile homes continue to test at a high level. Cigarette smoke, both inhaled and secondhand, is another major source of formaldehyde. Although the use of formaldehyde in cosmetic products like nail polish and shampoo is declining, many cheaper brands continue to use it as a preservative. Formaldehyde is also used to preserve corpses for burial and scientific research.

Children exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have higher rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis and allergies. A study of plywood workers found that exposure to formaldehyde at work can lead to several respiratory symptoms, including cough, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Nail technicians and other salon workers are exposed to formaldehyde in nail polish and nail hardeners. The surest way to reduce cancer risk is to limit exposure, but it can be easy to miss this stealthy killer. Although formaldehyde has a strong, unpleasant pickle odor, it must be present at concentrations of around 500 to 1000 parts per billion for the average person to smell it. Since negative health effects can occur from exposure as low as 0.06 parts per billion, below what the average person would detect, it is important to understand and identify the sources of formaldehyde. Inexpensive home tests are widely available at hardware stores or online at Amazon, and can provide instant results if you smell a chemical odor or experience headaches from furniture or cosmetics.

Formaldehyde probably already contributes to a large number of cancers in Louisiana. In Census Tract 405 of St. James Parish, where Fifth Ward Elementary School is located, exposure to formaldehyde accounts for 33.89% of the cancer risk for that census tract. According to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) Emissions Data Inventory, from 2019 through 2021, total formaldehyde emissions reported by facilities within 25 miles of the Fifth Ward Elementary School in St. James Parish was about 35 tons per year. If the Formosa Plastics project were built, it would add 25% more formaldehyde emissions than already exist, emitting an additional 8.9 tonnes per year!

Since 2015, there have been 10 accidental releases of formaldehyde at BASF, Hexion Chemical and Linde in Geismar. Those incidents in Ascension Parish alone account for 10% of formaldehyde incidents nationwide, according to data from the National Response Center.

If existing factories in Louisiana are already unable to control their formaldehyde releases, what makes LDEQ think Formosa Plastics, a company with a track record of environmental disasters, would be any different?

Despite increased regulation and some decreases seen in the face of the FEMA trailer tragedy, cancer risk from formaldehyde exposure remains an issue for nearly everyone in America. Reducing formaldehyde emissions is an important step towards reducing the risk of cancer, among other health problems. When we already need to take action in our own homes to reduce exposure to formaldehyde, why should anyone be allowed to emit more of it into the air and water?

HOW TO REDUCE THE NEED FOR FORMALDEHYDE

  • Choose a formalin- or formaldehyde-free polish (often called a 7, 9, or 10-free polish), and if you’re going to a nail salon, ask about indoor ventilation.
  • Applying a coat of paint can reduce formaldehyde emissions or “off-gassing” from walls, cabinets and furniture. VOC and ethylene glycol free paint brands include ECOS and Safecoat.
  • If you’re buying wooden furniture, look for solid wood pieces rather than particle board. “Reclaimed” wood products are environmentally friendly since they do not require the harvesting of new trees. If you are purchasing new plywood or particleboard furniture, place the furniture outside for a few days if possible to allow the formaldehyde to “let off”. Placing it indoors with strong outdoor ventilation for a few days is a good alternative.

Rise St. James is a faith-based community organization fighting for environmental justice as it works to defeat the proliferation of petrochemical industries in St. James Parish. Visit www.risestjames.org for more information.

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