Chemical Used in Food Containers Added to U.S. List of Carcinogens by NIH

The widely used preservative formaldehyde, and styrene, found in food containers and coffee cups, are among eight agents added to a list of known and suspected carcinogens by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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 health agency’s website. Styrene is categorized by researchers as “reasonably anticipated” to be cancer-causing.

The new compounds bring the total number of substances linked to cancer to 240. Aristolochic acids, found in herbal products used to treat arthritis and gout, were also listed as a known carcinogen because they can cause bladder or urinary-tract cancer in people with kidney disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned consumers against taking supplements containing aristolochic acid in 2001, according to the report.

“A listing in the report does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer,” said John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, in a conference call with reporters.

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, Bucher said.

‘Unfounded’ View

The report makes “unfounded classifications” about formaldehyde and styrene that will scare consumers, said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, a Washington trade group, in a statement. Formaldehyde manufacturers include Georgia-Pacific LLC, based in Atlanta.

The American Composite Manufacturers Association disputed the link between styrene and cancer.

“The styrene-based composite material system has been used safely for over 60 years,” the Arlington, Virginia-based trade group said in a statement. The organization’s members include Owens Corning (OC) Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, and Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc. (PPG)

Styrene is a component of the polystyrene used in food and drink containers, as well as the manufacturing of plastics, fiberglass, insulation, carpet backing and other products, according to the National Toxicology Program. Cigarette smokers face higher risks of exposure than others because the smoke contains styrene, the agency said.

Consumers don’t need to worry about polystyrene cups and food containers though they should seek versions of products like cosmetics that don’t contain formaldehyde, said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society.

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

The report is the 12th issued by the U.S. since the National Toxicology Program was established in 1978.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeffrey Young in Washington at jyoung89@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net.

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