U.S. House of Representatives passes legislation on formaldehyde emissions

Could open door to new product liability lawsuits.

On June 24, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation limiting the amount of formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products to 0.09 parts per million as of January 1, 2012; the U.S. Senate passed the measure on June 14. Just a few days earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft revised assessment of the health effects of formaldehyde exposure, strengthening the list of possible adverse effects from acute exposure, and stating that there is a causal relationship between formaldehyde exposure and various types of cancer. Manufacturers should watch these developments closely, and be prepared for the possibility of a new wave of product liability suits alleging that formaldehyde exposure from their products caused cancer or other adverse health effects.

Formaldehyde is often used in the production of resins, which are then used in the manufacture of particle board, plywood and other composite woods; as raw materials in surface coatings and adhesives; and in the manufacture of plastics and plasticizers. Formaldehyde is also used in the manufacture of dyes, cosmetics, textiles, disinfectants, animal feeds, perfumes, vitamins and explosives.

Exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde is known to cause health effects such as watery eyes, burning in the throat, nausea and asthma attacks. The EPA's new draft assessment also includes discussion of immune system effects and neurological damage, and suggests that these risks may be particularly acute in pregnant women, children and asthmatics. However, more importantly, the new EPA draft states that there is a evidence of a causal relationship between formaldehyde exposure and cancer, stating: "[t]here is sufficient evidence of a causal relationship between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the upper respiratory tracts, with the strongest evidence for nasopharyngeal and sino-nasal cancers." The assessment continues: "[t]here is also sufficient evidence of a causal association between formaldehyde exposure and lymphohematopoietic cancers, with the strongest evidence of Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia, particularly myleloid leukemia."

This new attention on formaldehyde is likely to lead to a new wave of product liability suits. For claims involving latent effects, such as cancer, manufacturers can still argue that the weight of medical science does not support a causal connection between formaldehyde exposure and cancer, especially at low levels. In addition, formaldehyde is ubiquitous in the environment, and occurs both naturally and as a pollutant. Individuals are likely exposed throughout their lifetimes to formaldehyde from air, water, cosmetics, fish consumption and cigarettes. Attributing formaldehyde exposure to any specific product is highly questionable in light of the many available sources.