Formaldehyde (AKA embalming fluid) is a known carcinogen, and even short-term exposure to high levels can cause respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and eye and skin irritation. The chemical is also omnipresent in American homes as a common ingredient in wood glue–used in furniture and laminate flooring–as well as wallpaper and paint, crease-resistant fabrics, and certain types of insulation. American companies sell billions of dollars worth of formaldehyde-containing wood products each year.
Until now, the dangerous chemical has gone largely unregulated in American homes. But after Hurricane Katrina, when displaced storm victims housed in shoddily crafted trailers suffered formaldehyde-related health problems, the Environmental Protection Agency began efforts to enforce stricter testing to ensure safe levels of the chemical in American household products.
But, as the New York Times reports, implementing such testing regulations is astronomically pricey, and would have a seismic impact in the furniture manufacturing industry in particular.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the new standards would cause the furniture industry tens of millions of dollars annually, to cover costs of testing and restrictions. Furniture industry executives expect the proposed regulations would cost 7,000 American manufacturing facilities more than $200 million each year.
That’s why big box furniture retailers like Ikea, smaller furniture businesses, and even the Chinese government–which fears the regulations would inhibit importing goods from China–are fighting the bill, trying to get the EPA to back down and loosen their proposed regulations.
“There are potentially over a million manufacturing jobs that will be impacted if the proposed rule is finalized without changes,” Bill Perdue, the chief lobbyist at the American Home Furnishings Alliance, wrote in a letter to the E.P.A. Opponents’ efforts to limit the regulations have, in part, succeeded: The EPA is prepared to compromise, planning to ease proposed testing requirements before updating the federal health standard.
The story is an example of how the design industry can affect policy and vice versa. But what’s worse here: a financial inconvenience for furniture manufacturers, or an unchecked public health crisis? The debate echoes other legislative battles over hazardous chemicals–asbestos, DDT, nicotine–and illustrates how businesses acting in their own self-interest can threaten public health (remember, brands are not your friends).
Head to the New York Times for the full story.