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Formaldehyde among substances added to cancer list
June 13th, 2011
06:01 AM ET

Formaldehyde among substances added to cancer list

Formaldehyde, a chemical used in embalming fluid and in consumer products is known to cause cancer, according to a new report from the federal government.

The 12th Report on Carcinogens, released Friday by the National Toxicology Program, officially added the chemical and several others to the list of substances known to cause cancer.

The move comes after years of delays prompted by critics, including the chemical industry, who say the studies used to establish the link to cancer are not based on science.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the environment in small amounts.  But more concerning are the levels of the chemical used in household products such as some nail polishes, hair straightening products, pressed wood products as well as industrial glues and car exhaust. Formaldehyde is the main ingredient in embalming fluid used in the funeral industry. It is also a large component of the 'new car smell' – composed of fumes emanating from carpets, upholstery, plastics and glues used in new cars.

But, Dr. Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer at the American Cancer Society and CNNHealth.com contributor, says he's less concerned about the amount of formaldehyde average consumers are getting from household products, and more concerned about workers exposed to the chemical.

"I worry about workers in the funeral industry, nail technicians and beauticians," he said. "It's not just one exposure. It's continuous exposure over time that increases risk."

Currently, formaldehyde is not listed on the labels of most products, so Brawley says it can be difficult to reduce exposure. He believes better labeling is on the way in light of the new report.

"Over time manufacturers will work very hard to get these things out of their products," says Brawley. "I think you'll start to see many companies labeling their products 'formaldehyde free.'"

Despite a lack of information for average consumers, Brawley says there are some small ways to reduce your risk: Keeping new cars and newly carpeted ares well ventilated, asking manufacturers if their products are formaldehyde free, and ensuring that if you work around formaldehyde, that your employer is following all OSHA regulations related to the chemical.

The report also added aristolochic acids – used in certain herbal remedies and teas – to the list of known carcinogens.  It added certain inhalable glass wool fibers, styrene – a liquid used to make Styrofoam,  and cobalt-tungsten carbide powders to the list of 'reasonably anticipated human carcinogens.'


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.