The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) have updated their list of carcinogens that the public needs to be aware of and although the packaging industry is a bit up in arms about it, formaldehyde and styrene have been added to the pile of over 240 supposedly cancer causing chemicals that can be found in many daily used items.

The American Composite Manufacturers Association disputed the link between styrene and cancer. Arlington, Virginia-based trade group said in a statement:

“The styrene-based composite material system has been used safely for over 60 years.”

To date, no regulatory body anywhere in the world has classified styrene as a known human carcinogen, although several refer to it in various contexts as a possible or potential human carcinogen.

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society said that the cancer-causing risk from formaldehyde and styrene comes from the products’ widespread use in industrial applications and less from their presence in consumer products. However formaldehyde is found in beauty products such as nail polish remover and styrene is found in many Styrofoam cup varieties.

Formaldehyde, linked to leukemia and a rare type of nasal cancer, is “known to be a human carcinogen,” according to the congressionally mandated report published today on the NIH website. Styrene is categorized by researchers as “reasonably anticipated” to be cancer-causing.

Brawley continues:

“I see no problem with Styrofoam cups. If I were using nail polish or nail polisher remover, I would try to get formaldehyde-free versions of those, which are available.”

Cigarette smokers face higher risks of exposure than others because the smoke contains styrene.

Aside, about 90,000 workers, including those who make boats, tubs, and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Health effects from exposure to styrene may involve the central nervous system and include complaints of headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating, and a feeling of intoxication.

Formaldehyde in itself is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used in building materials and to produce many household products. It is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials.

In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is produced in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes.

The Report on Carcinogens is a congressionally mandated document that is prepared for the HHS Secretary by the NTP. The report identifies agents, substances, mixtures, or exposures in two categories: known to be a human carcinogen and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.

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.

Once a substance is nominated by the public or private sector and selected for consideration, it undergoes an extensive evaluation with numerous opportunities for scientific and public input.

Sources: The National Institutes of Health and The United States Department of Labor

Written by Sy Kraft