Green Chemistry Co-Founder Boxed In By Formaldehyde Politics

Paul Anastas

Paul Anastas

Paul Anastas, co-founder of Green Chemistry, has hit a plywood wall. Not literally. But Anastas, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head EPA’s Office of Research & Development, is stuck in a political sticky wicket. And it’s not of his own making. Anastas directs the Yale Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering and is former director of ACS's Green Chemistry Institute. He was seen as a non-controversial shoo-in to lead EPA’s R&D effort. The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee easily approved his nomination in July and sent his name to the full Senate for a vote. Then an unnamed senator sent the Anastas nomination into limbo through an arcane procedural move called a “hold.” The Senate can’t vote on whether to confirm Anastas until the lawmaker lifts that hold. Inside the Beltway observers were scratching their heads over who had slapped a hold on Anastas and why. But the New Orleans Times Picayune followed the smell of formaldehyde offgassing from pressed board in FEMA-supplied trailers housing survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Reporter Jonathan Tilove confirmed that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had placed the hold on the nomination. Vitter’s move had nothing to do with Anastas’ record or qualifications, Tilove found. Instead, it has to do with Tilove calls the politics of formaldehyde. This has everything to do with EPA's new risk assessment of formaldehyde, a task that the agency has been busy on for many years and is nearly done with. Vitter wants the agency to send its assessment to the National Academy of Sciences for review before finalizing it. Such a move would delay, for two or three years, completion of the assessment. And the assessment would serve as the basis for a planned EPA regulation to limit the amount of formaldehyde that pressed wood products could offgas. Backing Vitter’s call for NAS review is the Formaldehyde Council, an industry group of formaldehyde producers and users. They include manufacturers of pressed wood products like plywood and particleboard, some of which are held together with a glue containing formaldehyde. In its web site, the council describes health risks of formaldehyde this way: “Formaldehyde like sunlight is necessary to life, it occurs naturally and we can not live without it. At higher exposures, it is an irritant. Too much sunlight, you get sunburned. Too much formaldehyde, your eyes water, your nose runs.” Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as carcinogenic to humans. EPA’s 1991 risk assessment of formaldehyde, which the agency is currently revising, ranks formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. Among Vitter’s campaign contributors are the American Forest & Paper Association, according to the Federal Election Commission and first reported by Chemistry World. The forest & paper industry group includes makers of wood products and the organization is a member of the Formaldehyde Council. Another contributor is Monsanto, which is not a member of the council. However, this chemical manufacturer operates a plant in St. Charles, La., that was the nation’s largest releaser of formaldehyde in 2007, according to EPA’s toxics release inventory. In the mean time, Anastas’ nomination remains boxed up until Vitter lets it out. And EPA’s research program remains without a leader. Stay tuned to C&EN to see whether or when the Senate finally gets an opportunity to vote on Anastas. IMAGE: Yale University

Author: Cheryl Hogue

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