By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: October 6, 2012
WHO knew that carcinogens had their own lobby in Washington?
Don’t believe me? Just consider formaldehyde, which is found in everything from nail polish to kitchen countertops, fabric softeners to carpets. Largely because of its use in building materials, we breathe formaldehyde fumes when we’re inside our homes. According to government scientists, it causes cancer.
The chemical industry is working frantically to suppress that scientific consensus — because it fears “public confusion.” Big Chem apparently worries that you might be confused if you learned that formaldehyde caused cancer of the nose and throat, and perhaps leukemia as well.
The industry’s strategy is to lobby Congress to cut off money for the Report on Carcinogens, a 500-page consensus document published every two years by the National Institutes of Health, containing the best information about what agents cause cancer. If that sounds like shooting the messenger, well, it is.
“The way the free market is supposed to work is that you have information,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the school of public health at George Washington University. “They’re trying to squelch that information.”
The chemical industry is represented in Washington by the American Chemistry Council, which is the lobbying front for chemical giants like Exxon Mobil, Dow, BASF and DuPont. Those companies should understand that they risk their reputations when they toy with human lives.
Last month, 76 scientists wrote a joint letter to Congress noting that the World Health Organization also listed formaldehyde as a known carcinogen, and styrene as a possible carcinogen. They defended the Report on Carcinogens as “consistent with international scientific consensus.” “The American Chemistry Council is working to delay and ultimately destroy” the Report on Carcinogens, the scientists wrote.
The basic strategy is an old one. As David Michaels notes in his book “Doubt Is Their Product,” the first evidence that asbestos causes cancer emerged in the 1930s. But three decades later, industry executives were still railing about “ill-informed and exaggerated” press reports, still covering up staggering cancer rates, and still denouncing regulation of asbestos as “premature.” Huge numbers of Americans today are dying as a result.
Do we really want to go through that again?