In May, President Obama nominated a renowned scientist known as the “father of green chemistry” to head the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. For an administration that supports ambitious climate change legislation and stresses the importance of sustainability, the nomination of Paul Anastas, director of Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and a former White House environment director, was very much in keeping with its broader agenda. Anastas’ nomination was unanimously approved in committee in July, and his confirmation seemed all but assured. Yet six months later Anastas still isn’t confirmed. Standing in his way is Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose block on Anastas’ nomination raises questions about Vitter’s close ties to the formaldehyde industry.
Today, the future of the formaldehyde industry is very much in jeopardy. A few years back, the International Agency for Research on Cancer definitively announced that the chemical, used in building materials and household products, causes cancer in humans. The EPA, which has studied formaldehyde’s risks for more than a decade, doesn’t go quite so far, saying it’s a “probable human carcinogen.” But that could soon change. The EPA has recently signaled that it plans to definitively assess formaldehyde’s health effects. “This is not the time for more delay,” an EPA spokeswoman told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in September. As the agency’s research director, Anastas would surely have a role in this assessment. Given that one of Anastas’ specialties is researching “the design of safer chemicals and chemical processes to replace hazardous substances,” the formaldehyde industry is predictably concerned about his nomination.
Here’s where Vitter comes in. Instead of the EPA ruling on formaldehyde now, Vitter wants the agency to let the National Academy of Sciences review formaldehyde’s risk, a process that could take a year or more and that might favor industry supporters, environmentalists say, because the NAS review would use industry-based reports. Likewise, blocking Anastas’ nomination is another way of slowing the EPA’s movement on formaldehyde. (An EPA official told Mother Jones that agency head Lisa Jackson met with Vitter to ask him to let the nomination go through, which didn’t happen.) And though a Vitter spokesman’s recent comments that the FEMA-trailer debacle, which exposed thousands of displaced Gulf Coast victims living in government-issued trailers to high formaldehyde levels, demonstrated the need “to get absolutely reliable information to the public about formaldehyde risk as soon as possible,” Vitter’s position ensures the EPA won’t be rolling out formaldehyde guidelines anytime soon.
So why is Vitter so sympathetic to the formaldehyde industry? Campaign finance records show that many of Louisiana’s big formaldehyde polluters happen to be—you guessed it—Vitter campaign donors. He’s received $9,000 from Dow Chemical’s PAC, $5,000 from Monsanto’s, $5,000 from ExxonMobil’s, and $2,500 from the American Forest and Paper Association’s. The American Forest and Paper Association is also a member of the Formaldehyde Council, an industry group whose views align with Vitter’s (it’s lobbied for an NAS review, too).
Anastas is under no illusions as to the obstacles in the way, telling Chemistry World in October that “we face tremendous challenges in ensuring the best science is brought to bear on issues like arsenic and formaldehyde.” Reached at his office Wednesday, he remained sanguine about his nomination, saying he was “extremely enthusiastic about assuming my duties at the EPA when the Senate finalizes its process and if they confirm me.” An environmentalist with the Sierra Club summed up the situation best to the Times-Picayune: “It’s just disappointing that anybody would try to get in the way of us finally adopting the kind of formaldehyde standards that exist in other [countries] that protect people. It’s ironic that this could come from somebody from Katrinaland, who has thousands of constituents who were exposed to excess formaldehyde level after being placed in government housing.”