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Formaldehyde, Styrene: Added to US Health Dept. List of Carcinogens

06.15.11 Formaldehyde, Styrene: Added to US Health Dept. List of Carcinogens

As many of you are already aware, formaldehyde is a chemical to avoid. We also know that it's widely accepted that styrofoam is not a great choice for food storage. Well, with last Friday's announcement, the US Health Department has finally agreed and added both formaldehyde and styrene to the list of known carcinogens in its heavily delayed 12th Cancer List, released by the toxicology program at the National Institutes of Health, as reported in the Huffington Post.

The Report on Carcinogens (RoC) is a congressionally mandated, science-based, public health document that is prepared for the HHS Secretary by the National Toxicology Program. The report identifies agents, substances, mixtures, and exposure circumstances that are known or reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans.

Where is formaldehyde? The EPA confirms formaldehyde in some of it's uses, "by itself or in combination with other chemicals, serves a number of purposes in manufactured products. For example, it is used to add permanent-press qualities to clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and as a preservative in some paints and coating products". Formaldehyde is classified as a volatile organic compound (VOC). It's hard to imagine that formaldehyde has crept into products like children's wooden toys, melamine dishes, nail polish, hair treatments, kitchen cabinets and wrinkle-free shirts! And that's just to name a few!

Here at MightyNest, we are particularly concerned when formaldehyde is used in children's toys and dishware. Often used in pressed particle board toys like puzzles and wooden building toys. This is why we search for natural wooden toys, free from harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and toxic glues and finished with water-based, non-toxic VOC-free stains. We also think it's important to choose dishware made from glass, stainless steel or silicone instead of melamine dishes. Read here for more information about melamine.

Styrene is a chemical in polystyrene plastics and styrofoam. In addition to being an endocrine disruptor, prolonged exposure to styrene has been found to be toxic to the brain and nervous system. Children can be exposed to styrene in food containers, second-hand smoke, car exhaust fumes, contaminated drinking water, and "off-gassing of building materials". As we have always noted, avoiding plastic food packaging is advisable whenever possible but especially those labeled with a "6" or "PS" (polystyrene). See our Plastics Guide from the Learn section here. Polystyrene can be made into foam-like containers OR plastic containers, including clear plastic cups and plastic forks, knives, and spoons which are usually made of polystyrene. Styrene is prone to leach into hot foods and food with a high fat content. Styrene fumes can also be found in some household products like paints, carpet and floor products. Storing foods in non-leaching materials like glass, stainless steel and silicone are excellent options. We have a terrific selection of safe food storage at MightyNest.

Some ways to avoid Formaldehyde and Styrene:

  • Choose natural wooden toys: Avoid pressed wood toys which often are made with formaldehyde.
  • Swap out melamine dishware: Non-leaching materials are safest for eating.
  • Check cosmetics at Skin Deep Database: for safe and formaldehyde-free products.
  • Wash the fabric before use: Durable press fabrics can contain formaldehyde.
  • Allow products to off-gas:  Before bringing any formaldehyde-containing products into your home, allow them to off-gas outside the home. Leave the new products in your garage or ask the manufacturer to leave the product unsealed in the warehouse for a few days.
  • Ventilate:  By increasing ventilation you can lower the concentration of formaldehyde. This may be accomplished by opening windows or bringing in fresh air through a central ventilation system.
  • Food Storage: Use glass or stainless steel for storing food.
  • Household products: Opt for zero or low-VOC paint, carpet made without the styrene in the adhesive (check for Green Label Plus Certification:certifies that carpets are free from 13 toxic chemicals) and natural wood finishes like beeswax.

What products have you been most surprised to learn contain formaldehyde, styrene or other unsafe chemicals?

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