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Formaldehyde and Wood Products

Chinese manufacturing companies have again exported unsafe products into the U.S. On March 1, a 60 Minutes exposé brought back memories of 2005, when thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina suffered from high formaldehyde emissions in the trailers that the federal government provided for them.
The 60 Minutes report revealed that low-cost laminated flooring, purchased from Lumber Liquidators stores around the country, released extremely high levels of formaldehyde that off-gas from the cured glue used to make the fiberboard in the flooring. All but one of the samples from China failed the emissions tests, with some readings as much as 20 times California’s standards. In contrast, the samples from North America all passed. On hidden camera, 60 Minutes filmed workers in three Chinese manufacturing facilities admitting that they knew the wood going to Lumber Liquidators flooring did not comply with the so-called “CARB 2” standards.

When NCHH, Sierra Club, and industry leaders (especially the Composite Panel Association), partnered in 2008 to nationalize California’s tough emission standards for wood products, they recognized the problem and knew that a federal law was essential to ensure compliance by foreign companies importing products to the U.S., as well as to ensure enforceability throughout our nation.
Led by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA), Congress passed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act in the summer of 2010, amending the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). Congress acted in a bipartisan manner to protect consumer health and level the playing field between U.S. wood product manufacturers and their offshore competitors.
In that legislation, Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue final rules by the end of 2012, with the rules to be effective a year later. EPA issued proposed rules in June 2013; however, we are still waiting on EPA to issue the final rules 26 months after the deadline.

As a practical matter, the initial deadline was unrealistic for an agency struggling with funding cuts and other pressures. The record shows that EPA waited a year for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to complete its 90-day review. OMB only released the rule after EPA revised its cost-benefit analysis to remove $250 million in estimated annual benefits resulting from 21,000 fewer children developing asthma. Another year was lost when many in the industry strenuously objected to EPA’s science-based decision to go beyond the California Air Resource Board (CARB) requirements – as Congress had authorized– and require third-party testing and certification not only by wood panel producers, as is already required by California, but also by laminators of wood products.

At each step of the process, NCHH sought to move the issue forward. In collaboration with other public interest groups, we submitted comments on the proposed emission standards and alerted EPA that “third-party” auditors in China may be cutting corners. In May 2014, NCHH proposed a compromise to the EPA-industry dispute over testing and certification requirements for laminators. And we called for testing of the finished product so that regulators could verify compliance.

The 60 Minutes story illustrates how critical it is that EPA act and issue its rules implementing the national standard on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon pressed the EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at a February 25 hearing. In a March 3 letter to Ms. McCarthy, congressional sponsors called for prompt issuance of the final rule. The next day, Senator Ben Nelson (D-FL) reinforced the call, asking for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Trade Commission, and Consumer Products Safety Commission to work with EPA and investigate the issue as the agencies did with the Chinese drywall problems several years ago.

Indeed, it’s time for EPA to act and for the White House to make sure that OMB doesn’t cause more delays. Just as importantly, it’s critical that EPA get the regulation right and do everything possible to keep the situation that reported by 60 Minutes from happening again. Our recent history with these unscrupulous Chinese companies shows that we should be prepared for more cheating. EPA must provide mechanisms to catch these cheaters. This includes third-party, verifiably independent testing and certification, as well as a means to randomly deconstruct and test wood products sold into the U.S. consumer market. To date, EPA has declined to adopt the latter for the national rules, even though California is committed to it. Without such testing, 60 Minutes could not have made clear that Chinese laminated flooring was mislabeled as CARB 2-compliant and emitted dangerously high amounts of formaldehyde, far beyond the bounds of California’s regulations.

EPA's Formaldehyde and Composite Wood Products rule is important for American consumers and especially for the children who are most vulnerable to irritation and toxic exposure. Its implementation is expected to prevent tens of thousands of children from developing asthma and will level the playing field for North American manufacturers that produce safer, compliant products. EPA needs to hold its ground and finally promulgate – and be able to enforce – effective standards for laminators of composite wood products.

UPDATE (May 3): The New York Times interviewed NCHH's Tom Neltner for an article about the EPA's regulation of formaldehyde. Read it here.

UPDATE (May 8): NCHH's Tom Neltner appeared on a CBS News segment about the Lumber Liquidators controversy. Watch it here.

EPA Safer Choices

Bewildered by the vast number of cleaning products available when shopping online or in your local supermarket? Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a way to narrow your choices of products so you make your home healthier. Just look for the “Safer Choice” logo on the product. Use EPA’s search engine to check whether your favorite brand carries the label.

If you’re worried about fragrances irritating your eyes or lungs, look for labels with "Fragrance Free" in the upper left corner. Unlike products advertised as “unscented,” which contain masking fragrances to hide the chemical smell, these products are what they claim to be – fragrance-free.

The logo replaces the cumbersome "Design for the Environment” ("DfE") logo that you may have seen on some products in recent years. EPA’s action comes just over a year after Walmart committed to having all of its private brand cleaning products meet the DfE (now Safer Choice) standards by January 2015. 

So, how do you know the Safer Choice products are actually safer? EPA requires that manufacturers disclose all ingredients, including fragrances, to a third party who ensures that the products meet the agency’s strict criteria for safety and performance. It also sets packaging standards and bans fragrances that government agencies in the U.S. and Europe have identified as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or sensitizers. And, in a relatively new feature, it audits the products for compliance. 

Finally, EPA enables you to make your own decision about safety by requiring that makers of Safer Choice-labeled products disclose all ingredients on the company’s website and reference the Web page on the product label. With this option, if you’re worried about a particular ingredient, you can make sure it’s not in the product. 

Note that there is an important limit to disclosure. To balance trade secret concerns for fragrances, EPA allows companies to provide a list of chemicals used across their various brands, rather than revealing the specific ingredients of a single product. If you want to know what the ingredients are in a single product, your only option appears to be S.C. Johnson. It’s the only firm we know of that goes a step beyond EPA’s labeling standards and names all of the ingredients in each product.

So, next time you’re shopping for cleaning products, look for EPA’s Safer Choice logo for a healthier home.

APHA, NCHH Release Healthy Housing Standard

A new standard published Monday will serve as a blueprint for ensuring the health and safety of U.S. homes.

APHA and the National Center for Healthy Housing released a standard that defines livable housing conditions, targeting the 30 million U.S. families who live in unsafe residences. The standard is intended to be used by government agencies and property owners to make certain that the nation’s housing stock is adequately maintained and protects the health and safety of residents.

“We look forward to seeing lives saved and communities stabilized as the code provisions are implemented,” said Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA, in a news release.

The National Healthy Housing Standard identifies hazardous living conditions and offers safety protections to address these problems, with recommendations for household systems, including:

  • plumbing;
  • lighting and electricity;
  • heating, ventilation and energy efficiency;
  • moisture and mold control;
  • pest management; and
  • chemicals such as radon, lead, formaldehyde and asbestos.

According to Jon Gant, director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the standard helps advance a federal housing strategy released by the agency on Feb. 4. It also updates a document co-produced by APHA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1986, using evidence connecting housing quality to asthma, cancer and other injuries.

“The development of this health-based standard is just the first step. The most important work of seeking its adoption by federal, state and local agencies is a heavy lift and will require the help and involvement of a wide array of partners,” said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing.

The National Committee on Housing and Health, which monitored the standard’s development is requesting comments on the standard through July 31.

CDC Releases Latest Blood Lead Data, Confirming that 535,000 Children Have High Levels and Disparities Persist

CDC Releases Latest Blood Lead Data, Confirming that 535,000 Children Have High Levels and Disparities Persist. (Hard to Believe that CDC and Congress Cut the Funding, Isn’t It?)

Children belonging to families with a low income (130% of poverty level)  are more than three times as likely children in higher income families to have high blood lead levels. The mean blood lead level for low income children is 1.6 µg/dL,  or .6 µg/dL higher than children in higher income households (1.2 µg/dL ).  Medicaid-enrolled children also have higher blood lead levels, and are more likely to have high blood levels, than non-Medicaid enrolled children. Non-Hispanic black children are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have BLLs at or above 5 µg/dL. The mean blood lead level for non-Hispanic black children  is 1.8 µg/dL, while non-Hispanic white children have a mean BLL  of 1.3 µg/dL. 

Title X Amendments Act of 2013

Representative Louise Slaughter (D, NY) introduced the House version of the Title X Amendments Act of 2013 on March 20. The eight original co-sponsors  who joined her are representatives David Cicilline (D, RI), Elijah Cummings (D, MD), Raul Grijalva (D, AZ), Alcee Hastings (D, FL), Barbara Lee (D, CA), Jerrold Nadler (D, NY), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D, CA), and Frederica Wilson (D, FL). The bill, H.R. 1232, is the companion to S.B. 290, which was introduced in the Senate on February 13 by senators Jack Reed (D, RI), Mike Johanns (R, NE), Barbara Boxer (D, CA), and Al Franken (D, MN).

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