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US government: formaldehyde causes cancer

By Andrew McDougall , 16-Jun-2011

Hair straightening products will be scrutinized further following the US government’s announcement that formaldehyde is a listed carcinogen.

The substance was placed on the list, along with seven others by the Department of Health and Human Sciences (HHS), named as being directly involved in causing cancer.

The report contained warnings from scientists that people with higher exposure to formaldehyde were more at risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia and other forms of cancers.

'There is now sufficient evidence from studies in humans to show that individuals with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers' the Report on Carcinogens said.

Hair smoothing furor

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is commonly used as a preservative in some consumer products, including hair straightening products.

In small concentrations formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and mucus membranes, resulting in watery eyes, headache, a burning sensation in the throat, and difficulty breathing.

Large formaldehyde exposures is converted to formic acid in the body, leading to a rise in blood acidity, rapid, shallow breathing, hypothermia, and coma or death.

Over the past year it has come under increased scrutiny in the personal care industry following a string of lawsuits and health claims surrounding its use in hair smoothing treatments, prompting some members of Congress to request the Food and Drug Administration to take action to protect salon workers and consumers.

In April, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert, warning that formaldehyde-containing hair-straightening products can cause serious health problems, including increased risk of cancer.

Is it or isn’t it? Questions remain

As a result of the risks posed by these types of salon treatments, six countries have recalled the use of formaldehyde-based straighteners, however, the FDA has yet to issue a voluntary recall.

And the Environmental protection agency is yet to update its chemical risk assessment since 1998, amid constant stalling from chemical manufacturers.

The EPA set the standard when it comes to how dangerous chemicals are, and the Amercian Chemical Council believe this recent announcement may serve to influence this decision, and claims that the announcement is proof that President Barack Obama has gone back on his commitment to science made earlier in his administration.

“We are extremely concerned that politics may have hijacked the scientific process and believe this report by HHS is an egregious contradiction to what the President said early in his administration, ‘…That science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration…’,”said Cal Dooney, the Council’s president and CEO.

“The HHS designation on formaldehyde ignores the finding from the independent, government-mandated National Academy of Sciences report which strongly questioned whether the scientific evidence supports a connection between formaldehyde and leukemia.”