Democrats, Politics — October 29, 2009 at 5:25 pm

The Politics of Formaldehyde: As goes Calif., so goes the U.S.


Cross-posted at DK Greenroots.

After Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of families from Louisiana and Mississippi, displaced by the storm that destroyed their homes, were placed in trailers provided by the federal government. Almost immediately calls began to come in to FEMA complaining about breathing problems and other maladies as a result of staying in the trailers.

It turns out the building materials in the trailers, primarily the carpeting and, even more so, the wood paneling, were emitting formaldehyde at up to 400 times the legal limits. As usual, there was a government cover-up to downplay the negative health impacts of formaldehyde, a known cancer suspect agent and highly toxic gas.

But that’s not what this blog entry is about.

It’s about efforts by the Obama administration (through the EPA) and a Democratic Senator, Amy Klobuchar, to make sure this NEVER happens again and to ensure the safety of ALL Americans when it comes to formaldehyde in their homes.

A couple of years ago, the state of California, through the California Air Resources Board (CARB), announced that it was moving toward new regulations dramatically limiting the emissions of formaldehyde by wood composites and engineered wood panels used in the manufacture of housing. The companies making the formaldehyde-emitting resins shrieked. The wood composites manufacturers freaked. An advertising blitz downplaying the problem was immediately launched. But, in the end, CARB prevailed and in 2007 they passed the new legislation. Phase One went into effect January 1st of this year and Phase Two which lowers allowable emission rates follows in 2011.

Because the California market is so huge and because they generally lead the way on health and environmental legislation, manufacturers of the types of materials that are polluting the Katrina trailers have had to make big changes across the board (no pun intended.) In other words, they don’t just make a product for California because it’s not practical. They’ve changed ALL of their operations. And that’s a good thing

So despite the hue and cry from industry and anti-regulatory forces, groups that condemned CARB’s actions, the real winners are the consumers in the USA. We’ll all be a bit safer after this, thanks to California.

But now the regulatory effort is going beyond California’s CARB regulation. First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved:

Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

On December 3, 2008, EPA published in the Federal Register an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) that:

  • Describes EPA’s initial steps to investigate potential actions to protect against risks posed by formaldehyde emitted from pressed wood products used in manufactured homes and other places;
  • Requests comment, information and data relating to formaldehyde emissions from pressed wood products.

On January 30, 2009 EPA announced in the Federal Register that it was extending the comment period on the ANPR for 45 days and that it would holding one additional public meeting to enable more complete public participation.

This rulemaking is in progress but it has become as political football. Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter is blocking the appointment of Paul Anastas to a position as EPA’s assistant administrator in charge of its Office of Research and Development. Anastas is known as the “Father of Green Chemistry” and is a superb choice for this position. However, Vitter wants the EPA to study formaldehyde more. What’s that? A Republican Senator using delay tactics to prevent sensible consumer protection? What. Are. The. Odds???

After his nomination back in May, a key Senate panel easily approved Anastas in July. But now, Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter is blocking Anastas’ nomination because he wants the EPA to submit to a review of its formaldehyde risk assessment by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). […] The agency disagrees with Vitter’s position and believes additional research is unnecessary. ‘The research has been done and we are ready to move forward,’ states agency spokesperson Adora Andy. The concern is that an NAS study could delay resolution and action on formaldehyde toxicity.

In the meantime, Democrats in Congress aren’t waiting around. On September 11th, United Press International (UPI) reported that Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced legislation to curb indoor emissions of formaldehyde. Mike Crapo (R-ID) was a co-sponsor. From her press release regarding S. 1660 – The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act:

“I’ve always believed that the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens,” said Klobuchar. “High levels of formaldehyde are a health threat. This bill will establish national standards that, when fully phased-in, will be the strongest in the world. These standards will both protect public health and ensure an even playing field between domestic wood products and foreign imports.” Klobuchar added: “This legislation is pro-industry, pro-consumer, pro-environment and pro-public health. Its passage will be a legislative grand slam.” Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said, “I would like to thank Senator Klobuchar for her leadership on this issue, and I am pleased to lend my support to this legislation, which will supply manufacturers of composite wood products with a uniform standard for formaldehyde in wood products. In addition to providing certainty for industry, this bill aims to achieve important public health benefits as well.”

Now that’s bipartisanship you can believe in! More from an article by the Wall Street Journal:

Currently, there is no federal standard for formaldehyde emissions in most homes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has set limits on formaldehyde in plywood and particleboard, but they apply specifically to materials used to build prefabricated and mobile homes. Under the proposed legislation, composite wood products sold in the U.S. would have to meet formaldehyde-emission standards of about 0.09 parts per million by January 2012, matching standards recently adopted by California.

Of course, the makers of formaldehyde resins aren’t going to take this lying down and you can expect serious pushback from them. From the UPI article:

Betsy Natz, executive director of the Formaldehyde Council Inc., said in a statement the council has yet to review the proposed legislation but research indicates “there is essentially no risk” from the typical exposure to the preservative in U.S.-made products.

Tell that to all those people who got gassed out in their Katrina trailers, lady. I work closely with this industry. There are alternative and much safer resins available and they are making major inroads at displacing the use of urea-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde resins. In fact, the entire process could be used as a case study for the impacts on markets of consumer protection regulation. As a void is created, other technologies rush in to fill it and the winners are the companies that can solve a technological problem in the safest, most cost-effective way. Stay tuned as the Politics of Formaldehyde play themselves out over the next year or so. And, while your at it, here are three things you can do to help the process along: 1. Call or write Senator Vitter and ask him to quit delaying the appointment of Paul Anastas to a position as EPA’s assistant administrator in charge of its Office of Research and Development.

Contact information for Senator Vitter: Website HERE Email webpage HERE Washington, D.C. Office 516 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510 Main: (202) 224-4623 Fax: (202) 228-5061 Other offices can be found HERE

2. Contact Senators Klobuchar and Crapo and thank them for their legislation.

Contact information for Senator Klobuchar: Website HERE Email page HERE Washington, DC office 302 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510 phone: 202-224-3244 fax: 202-228-2186 Other offices HERE Contact information for Senator Crapo: Website HERE Email page HERE Washington, DC office 239 Dirksen Senate Building Washington, DC 20510 Phone: (202) 224-6142 Fax: (202) 228-1375 Other offices HERE

3. Contact your own Senator and urge them to support Klobuchar’s bill, S. 1660 – The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Act.

Once again, California has led the nation in progressive initiatives. And what’s happening here in the USA will spread across the globe. Although wood is not used as a housing material nearly as much in other parts of the world, there is a great deal of housing construction material made from wood composites that are imported into North America and they will be affected by these actions as well.

I’m just sayin’…