Waiting for Formaldehyde Limits 10 Years After Katrina

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By Pat Rizzuto

Aug. 28 — Ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the U.S. still does not have national standards to limit formaldehyde emissions from composite wood such as those released in the trailers provided to thousands of displaced residents.

“No family should ever worry that their wood floors—the ones they walk on and their kids play on every day—contain toxic chemicals that could make them sick,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told Bloomberg BNA in an Aug. 27 e-mail.

“That’s why I led bipartisan legislation that was signed into law to create federal standards that guard against these toxins in wood products. It’s well past time for the EPA to finish the job we gave them by finalizing and implementing these much-needed protections, and I have repeatedly told the agency that,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar's 2010 Formaldehyde Standards for Composite-Wood Products Act (Pub. Law No. 111-199) was signed into law in 2010.

Congress Set 2013 Deadline 

The act directed the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national limits by Jan. 1, 2013, for formaldehyde emissions in composite-wood products. The law amended the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates chemicals.

The EPA did not provide comment to Bloomberg BNA about the status of its final standards, which have not been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its review.

The law, supported by both industry and environmental health groups, directed the EPA to apply nationwide California's formaldehyde emission standards for hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particle board nationwide (S. Rpt. No. 111–169).

Many U.S. companies already met California's standards. Concerns about the Gulf Coast residents who had lived in government-provided trailers that released high concentrations of formaldehyde also spurred support for the law.

The law allowed the EPA to diverge from California's standards if the agency deemed that appropriate.

In rules the EPA proposed in 2013, the agency would have diverged from California's standards in several ways, for example, by broadening the definition of laminated products subject to emissions limits.

Chemical producers, kitchen cabinet makers and other manufacturers urged the agency to use California's approach instead.

Industry Group: `Eager for EPA to Move Forward.'

Jackson Morrill, president of the Composite Panel Association, which supported the formaldehyde standards act, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 27 that he did not know whether the lamination or other issues were delaying EPA's final standards.

“We are eager for EPA to move forward,” Morrill said.

Standards that would apply California's limits nationwide would level the playing field for companies making and selling goods across the country and require imported composite wood products to meet the same standards, Morrill said.

Tom Neltner, an environmental health attorney who worked to secure passage of the formaldehyde act, told Bloomberg BNA no single obstacle has caused the delay.

The OMB didn't complete its year-long review of the agency's proposed rule until after the 2013 deadline for the final standards already had passed.

OMB's review is supposed to take 90 days, Neltner said.

In addition, “Congress has created a grueling rulemaking process and does not give the agency the resources it needs to complete the process. This mandate, in particular, did not come with additional resources,” Neltner said.

Congress punted the lamination issue to EPA, which determined that laminated wood could expose consumers to significant levels of formaldehyde, he said.

No Guaranteed Protection Yet

“The problem was real. From my perspective, getting accurate answers takes time,” Neltner said.

The public interest community crafted a middle way that would have made it easier for companies that put a hardwood laminate on compliant composite-wood products to comply with the EPA's requirements, he said.

“We think it is the best option and would encourage EPA to give it serious consideration,” Neltner said.

“But the reality is that until there is a rule, the residents outside of California who suffer the next Katrina-like disaster as well as those buying cabinets and furniture in the store today are not getting the protection Congress said was essential back in 2010. While many producers are conscientious, we have seen sufficient evidence that not all producers and importers are as careful as they need to be. EPA needs to act,” Neltner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Information on the formaldehyde act and EPA's efforts to implement it is available at http://www.epa.gov/oppt/formaldehyde/.