08/07/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

The Formaldehyde Connection

To illustrate that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are unnecessarily burdensome, a Republican congressman cites the government's handling of formaldehyde as a prime example.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is the lawmaker in question, and the gaseous chemical he picked to drive home his message in behalf of the GOP was a very poor choice indeed. Cassidy seemed unaware of formaldehyde's volatile legislative history in which President Reagan's EPA initially dismissed the need for regulation, grievously downplaying the chemical's medical toxicity. This regulatory dereliction, which pleased the chemical industry no end, eventually erupted into scandal. The controversy was instrumental in leading to the resignation of EPA's top brass, including its administrator, the late Anne Gorsuch. A combination of embarrassment and public pressure subsequently forced Reagan to appoint more moderate successors.

Back to the present. A medical doctor no less, Congressman Cassidy is certainly not much of a student of history. More to the point, he is definitely not a persuasive critic of environmental regulatory excess, and that goes for his Republican colleagues in the House as well. They have been trying unsuccessfully to emasculate the EPA on the grounds that its regulatory overzealousness has cost jobs and weakened the economy.

Certainly red tape should be eliminated, and the EPA is not immune from duplication. But overall, the vast majority of its regulations serve to protect public health and the environment, and over the long term, have been projected to generate far more benefits than costs. Economic studies show that plant closings and job losses have been due primarily to a recessionary slowdown in consumer demand, not environmental regulation. The latter, after all, has also been around in periods of great economic prosperity.

In 1982, Dr. John A. Todhunter, the EPA assistant Administrator for Pesticides and a former advisor to the chemical industry, brushed aside federal government scientists' recommendations for regulating formaldehyde, a widely used disinfectant and preservative. Todhunter declared the substance harmless, despite causing cancer in laboratory test animals. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, backed up by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, begged to differ. They declared formaldehyde foam in insulation a cancer risk and issued a ban on its use. Even without the cancer threat, direct exposure to formaldehyde had been found to frequently cause respiratory distress, nausea, headaches and dizziness, making it an unwelcome ingredient in household and children's products.

After being detected altering the incriminating federal formaldehyde study, Todhunter resigned in March of 1983 with his boss soon to follow.

Even if Congressman Cassidy were ignorant of formaldehyde's troubled past, you would think he would have caught wind of the state of Minnesota restricting the substance a mere three months ago. And while some uses of formaldehyde are still permitted here, such is not the case in Europe and Japan. Do they know something Republicans don't know, not just about formaldehyde but about environmental regulation in general?