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When formaldehyde goes bad

Johnson & Johnson removed a formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15 from its baby shampoo.

Johnson & Johnson removed a formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15 from its baby shampoo.

Published Mar 13, 2014


Washington - It happens to me, too. When the word comes up out of context, I think first of dead things. The frogs I dissected in school, open-casket funeral viewings … the word formaldehyde quickly conjures up eerie images.

Formaldehyde is often paired with another ominous term – cancer. So perhaps it’s not surprising that people freak out a bit when they hear that formaldehyde is in baby shampoo, hand lotion, or vaccines.

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An American environmental advocacy organisation, the Environmental Working Group, raised concerns several years ago about a formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15 in Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo and other personal care products.

The company sprang into action, promising to introduce reformulated products without the preservative by the end of last year. And deliver it did. But did it really need to? Before we dig into that question, keep two thoughts in mind.

First, high enough doses of inhaled formaldehyde can cause cancer.

Second, every minute of every day on every inch of this planet, formaldehyde is all around you and inside you. Always.

Yet we’re not all dropping dead from cancer. That’s thanks to one of the most fundamental principles of toxicology: the dose makes the poison.

“Unfortunately, all molecules are potentially toxic,” says American University chemist Matthew Hartings. “Toxicity is not just about the molecule but about the molecule and its concentration.”

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The concern about formaldehyde in personal care products reveals a bit of chemophobia, which Dartmouth chemistry professor Gordon Gribble defines as “an irrational fear of chemicals based on ignorance of the facts”.

He says, “people don’t know how small molecules are, and they believe that single molecules of some chemical pose a health threat”.

That’s exactly the concern the Environmental Working Group expressed. “The actual molecule formaldehyde itself is the carcinogen,” says Johanna Congleton, toxicologist and senior scientist at the group. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in a liquid or if you’re inhaling particles with formaldehyde.”

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The only studies that link formaldehyde to cancer are related to humans inhaling it, and inhaling large amounts of it. Funeral industry professionals with more than 34 years of experience or who had performed more than 500 embalmings and factory workers who spent years working around formaldehyde before the 1990s had higher risks for leukaemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The amount of exposure required to cause cancer is so high that other studies of factory workers have been inconclusive.

Formaldehyde occurs naturally in common fruits and vegetables.

“Unless people calling for removal of quaternium-15 are also keeping their children from eating apples and French fries, I think their activism may be misplaced,” Hartings says.

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Our bodies create formaldehyde as a normal by-product during amino acid synthesis and overall metabolism, including breaking down antibiotics and other medications. It’s also in drinking water and the air we breathe.

Homer Swei, a scientist at Johnson & Johnson, points out that 90 percent of the formaldehyde around us is naturally occurring, with 60 percent of it coming from plants and trees. Further, the formaldehyde in synthetic or manufactured products is no different in chemical structure from naturally occurring formaldehyde.

Yet the presence of formaldehyde all around us is also a reason for the Environmental Working Group’s argument against its use in personal care products. “Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and we’re concerned about exposure over time,” says Heather White, the group’s executive director. “We feel that when there are safe alternatives available, we should be pushing the market in that direction. ‘When in doubt, take it out’ should be the mantra for companies.”

But is there any doubt regarding the safety of formaldehyde levels found in personal care products?

Cosmetic companies follow the guidelines of the independent Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which requires that free formaldehyde (including that released by preservatives) make up less than 0.2 percent of a product’s ingredients.

According to Swei, who says Johnson & Johnson adheres to these guidelines, it would take more than 40 million baby shampoo baths in a single day to reach the formaldehyde levels set in California by Proposition 65 – a law called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 and passed by voters in the state.

So why did Johnson & Johnson remove quaternium-15 if it’s safe? The consumers asked it to. The company’s job is not to combat misconceptions, it’s to sell products.

Concerns about formaldehyde have cropped up before, however. One of the many disproven arguments of the anti-vaccine movement is that formaldehyde poses a danger. But again the amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is dwarfed by the comparatively huge amounts in everyday food.

So why do we worry about formaldehyde when it’s in the air and our food, and our exposures are so tiny as to be harmless?

Once fear is established, it’s hard to overcome. Mike Mackert, a University of Texas professor who studies health literacy, points out: “Once people latch on to a particular belief, sometimes hearing contradictory, though correct, information only strengthens an incorrect belief.”

People’s sense of control influences how they respond to a perceived risk. If they feel their safety could be threatened, but there are effective ways to protect themselves, then they are more likely to respond to the risk logically.

If people don’t have a good way to protect themselves or their loved ones, they are “more likely to respond to the threat less rationally”, says Anthony Dudo, a University of Texas professor who studies science communication and public perceptions.

The perceived lack of control ratchets up the perception of the threat, perhaps explaining why flying may seem scarier than driving despite the greater risk of a car accident than an aircraft crash.

With baby shampoo, consumers’ fears about formaldehyde may rise to extreme levels because, short of boycotting the product, they feel helpless about doing anything about it. The same principle helps explain vaccine fears about formaldehyde.

Ultimately it’s up to individuals to overcome their fears and use evidence to assess risks.

When it comes to formaldehyde, at least, it’s time to take a deep breath and chill a bit. – Slate / The Washington Post News Service

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