Despite recent news that the Justice Department is pursuing criminal charges against Lumber Liquidators, the world’s largest hardwood flooring retailer, over its importation of illegally-sourced Chinese laminate flooring containing extreme levels of formaldehyde, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing massive pressure to roll-back its proposed regulation of the substance. Formaldehyde is a common chemical, naturally produced in low levels by humans as well as fruits like bananas and grapes. In high doses, however, it can become a respiratory irritant, and is even a known carcinogen. In a practical sense, the most common cause of overexposure to formaldehyde comes from its intensive presence in wood-glues found in the building products in many structures and furniture, combined with poor ventilation. The EPA began work on tighter restrictions of formaldehyde following Hurricane Katrina, where many victims who were placed in emergency trailers began to complain of sore throats, burning eyes, and other more serious illnesses. A recent pushback however, led by lobbyists for the furniture industry and the Chinese government, as well as by key Democrats such as California Senator Barbara Boxer and even President Obama, has left some EPA scientists frustrated. The efforts appear to signal a repeated theme when it comes to chemical regulation, that money still trumps safety on many occasions.
Beginning with the symptoms found during the Katrina aftermath, public health advocates petitioned the EPA to regulate the acceptable amount of formaldehyde contained in building products and furniture. Although limits were already in place regarding the level of formaldehyde in workplaces, California became the only state that adopted limits for these materials intended for residential use as well in 2008. In 2010, Congress passed the Formaldehyde Standards Act, modeling the bill after the California law, ordering the EPA to finalize formal rules regarding the regulation of the substance within 5 years. President Obama signed the bill into law on July 7th, 2010.
From nearly the time the bill became law, lobbyists and legislators began opposing the measure. Lobbying groups like the American Chemistry Council began questioning the validity of the link between cancer and formaldehyde, and industry groups like the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association cited the high costs of testing as an impossible financial barrier for small furniture businesses. Executives from several large furniture companies like La-Z-Boy, Hooker Furniture, and Ashley Furniture all petitioned for Congress to urge the EPA to back off of the regulations, and White House records show 5 separate visits by lobbyists and lawyers for the chemical and furniture industries in 2012 alone. One major ally for the lobby has been Senator David Vitter (R-LA), who environmental groups have given the moniker; “Senator Formaldehyde.” Vitter, who received over $600,000 in contributions from the petrochemical industry and an additional $340,000 from other chemical-related trades between 2009 and 2013, has made multiple attempts to dilute even further one of the weakest pieces of legislation in the books, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Additionally, the Chinese government has also entered the fight, calling the increase in testing standards to be a “great barrier” for imports due to higher costs. During the March 60-Minutes expose’ on Lumber Liquidators, company executives said that they import 52 percent of its laminate flooring from China, although temporarily halting Chinese inventories in light of the scandal brought about by the segment and the impending criminal complaint.
The effort to push back on the impending EPA regulations isn’t just coming predictably from industry lobbyists and known supporters inside of Washington. One surprisingly noteworthy opponent of the forthcoming rules is Senator Barbara Boxer. Boxer, usually a staunch advocate for regulation, joined fellow California Democrat, Representative Doris Matsui, in claiming that the EPA regulations will be tougher than those of California, affecting a large share of the state’s manufacturing industry. While many on all sides of the issue have cited budgetary concerns over the proposed rules, none have taken such concrete steps as the Obama administration itself. In what appears to be a reaction to the multiple lobbying attempts, the president has backed off substantially from the law that he signed 5 years ago. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made dramatic changes in its re-estimate of the EPA’s analysis of the cost-saving benefits of reducing the health-related ailments due to the tighter testing standards. In its evaluation, OMB reduced the potential savings from the EPA’s estimate of up to $278 million per year to as little as $48 million, much to the delight of Vitter and other opponents looking to use this estimate to their advantage in debating the measure.
Citing that the opposition may have some degree of merit, Jim Jones, an EPA administrator who oversaw the drafting of the proposed regulations, admits that the cost factor of testing laminated products may lead to re-evaluating some of the rules, stating “It’s not a secret to anybody that is the most challenging issue.” Jones’s reassessment also came after lobbyists took Jones on a tour of a North Carolina furniture plant to see how laminate products are produced. Jones admitted that the tour “helped the agency shift its thinking” despite EPA scientists’ adamancy regarding the dangers that formaldehyde presents. It remains to be seen, as the deadline for these rules approaches, if their concerns will ultimately be trumped by industry pressure.
CBS News – Anderson Cooper
Environmental Working Group – Alex Formuzis
New York Times – Eric Lipton & Rachel Abrams
Yahoo Health – Korin Miller