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U.S. Government Classifies Formaldehyde as a Known Carcinogen

For Immediate Release: June 15, 2011

Brookfield, Wis. – On June 10, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) National Toxicology Program (NTP) issued the 12th edition of its Report on Carcinogens (RoC) and, for the first time, listed formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. This new listing represents a significant change from the 11th RoC, issued in 2005, which classifies formaldehyde as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

The RoC is a scientific and public health document that provides information to the public about substances that put people in the United States at risk for cancer. A substance listed in the RoC indicates a potential hazard. The RoC includes 240 listings, with 54 substances classified as known human carcinogens.

In issuing the 12th RoC, HHS noted that "a listing in the Report on Carcinogens does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer. Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure and an individual's susceptibility to a substance, affect whether a person will develop cancer."

The NTP's evaluation of formaldehyde consisted of a review of available scientific literature and many opportunities for public review and comment; the NTP did not conduct independent research. The NTP issued an extensive background report on formaldehyde on January 22, 2010 (http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/2009/November/Formaldehyde_BD_Final.pdf).

The NTP relied heavily on a 2009 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study that found that embalmers face a risk of myeloid leukemia. The NTP noted that embalmers are more likely than others to risk a longer duration of formaldehyde exposure, a higher total exposure and peak exposures greater than four parts per million. The NTP called the NCI study one of the "most informative occupation-based studies" evaluating the relationship between exposure to formaldehyde and cancer risk.

The NCI study, however, is not without criticism. In evaluating the findings of the study, NFDA found that the study may have limitations based on data quality and the study methods used:

  • NCI researchers examined professionals employed in funeral service who died between 1960 and 1986, before OSHA's current formaldehyde standard became effective. The current OSHA formaldehyde standard, which reduces workers' allowed formaldehyde exposure, has changed work practices in the preparation room.
  • Vital statistics about the embalmers examined as part of the NCI study were obtained from death certificates that may not be accurate.
  • To obtain information about the embalming practices of those under study, researchers conducted interviews with third parties, next-of-kin or co-workers, often many years after the embalmer died.

Many, including NFDA, agree that further study is needed to help to clarify the current level of risk from embalming.

On April 8, 2011, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report evaluating the Environmental Protection Agency's formaldehyde risk assessment. In its report, the NTP went to great lengths to explain that the missions of the NRC and the NTP were different and that the NRC report was of "limited applicability" because did not contain a hazard assessment.

Nevertheless the NTP sought to show that the two organizations shared common ground, both concluding that formaldehyde causes cancer of the nose, nasal cavity, and nasopharynx, and that formaldehyde causes genetic damage, which can lead to the development of cancer. However, the NRC report raised substantial questions about whether scientific evidence supports claims that formaldehyde exposure causes leukemia.

Although the NTP did acknowledge that the mechanisms by which formaldehyde causes cancer are not completely understood, especially the means by which it causes myeloid leukemia, it concluded that there was sufficient evidence of cancer from studies in humans, specifically myeloid leukemia, to classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

Despite the NTP's finding, determining whether formaldehyde exposure causes leukemia continues to be a critical issue.

Background information on the 12th RoC and the process leading to its issuance is available online: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/materials/roc12fs.pdf.

NFDA urges funeral directors to follow NFDA's formaldehyde best management practices (www.nfda.org/additional-tools-embalming) and the recommendations found in NFDA's ventilation study (www.nfda.org/ventilation) to minimize formaldehyde exposure in the preparation room to the greatest extent possible. Reducing exposure to formaldehyde is the best way to reduce the ill effects of formaldehyde. NFDA strongly believes that careful control of formaldehyde exposure in the preparation room is the best way to protect the health and safety of embalmers.

To help embalmers understand ways they can reduce their exposure to formaldehyde, NFDA will soon begin a comparison study of formaldehyde-free embalming products.

NFDA is the world's leading funeral service association, serving 18,500 individual members who represent more than 9,900 funeral homes in the United States and 43 countries around the world. From its headquarters in Brookfield, Wis., and its Advocacy Division office in Washington, D.C., NFDA is the worldwide source of expertise and professional resources for all facets of funeral service. Through education, information and advocacy, NFDA is dedicated to supporting members in their mission to provide families with meaningful end-of-life services at the highest levels of excellence and integrity. For more information, visit www.nfda.org.

 

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Media Contact: Jessica Koth, 262-814-1536, jkoth@nfda.org

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