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Formaldehyde and the Chicken Little phenomenon.

The story of Chicken Little is an allegory about alarmists, which concludes with an admonition against ill-founded apocalyptic predictions.

You may recall that Chicken Little was strutting about the garden one day when a rose leaf fell on her tail. Limited intellectual capacity prevented her from correctly interpreting the significance of this event. Her conclusion that the sky was falling was not supported by the facts.

She panicked when she contemplated the impending destruction and chaos, and ran off to warn the king. Along the way, she encountered impressionable neighbors. Finding her upset, they asked what was wrong. She told them of the terrifying event soon to come.

When the doubting Henny Penny pressed her to defend her apocalptic prediction. Chicken Little responded: "I saw it with my eyes; I heard it with my ears; and part of it fell on my tail."

The doubts dissipated. Henny Penny and the others embraced her prediction of doom, for it had an apparent factual foundation and fulfilled an inner need. Soon all were hopelessly panicked and became easy pickings for the local predator. Foxy Loxy. The conclusion: If you panic, you are at the mercy of the unscrupulous, and you may be eaten alive.

The moral of this tale should be taken to heart by the doomsayers and their followers who with regularity predict that the world will come to an end two weeks from Saturday, that the Russians will invade West Germany by Thanksgiving Day, that we'll die of bladder cancer if we drink soft drinks sweetened with saccharin, or that we'll develop cancer of the nasal turbmates if we breathe formaldehyde vapors.

There are many analogies between these depressing predictions and that of Chicken Little. The first is that all are unnecessarily alarming. Second, there is little credible evidence to suggest they are correct. Third, they expose the inability of the doomsayers and their followers to process relevant information and synthesize rational, appropriate interpretations.

Regarding the last-mentioned scare, the carcinogenicity of formaldehyde, let us summarize the pertinent facts.

1. Formaldehyde exposure is difficult to avoid. Seven billion pounds of it will be manufactured in the United States this year, most of it for domestic consumption. This calculates to about 33 pounds for every man, woman, and child in the country. Its vapor pressure is high, causing it to easily enter the air we breathe, and its nonmedical uses include processes assured to provide virtually universal contact with it: for example, production of particle board and insulation, printing and publishing, and manufacture of paper and allied products.

2. Rats exposed to 15 ppm formaldehyde for six hours, a day, five days a week, have a significant risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the nasal turbinates after 16 months of exposure. In contrast, the risk of such tumors among mice similarly exposed is quite low.

3. Formaldehyde has been shown to be mutagenic in fruit flies, grasshoppers, flowering plants, fungi, and bacteria, but not in humans.

4. Formaldehyde smells bad, irritates eyes and nasal passages, and in sensitive individuals causes dermatitis and sometimes wheezing. Good ventilation and avoidance of spills makes working with formaldehyde less unpleasant.

5. Pathologists and histotechnologists as well as chemical workers, morticians, and many other groups are chronically exposed to higher concentrations of formaldehyde than is the population at large.

6. Three recent mortality studies of chemical workers and morticians were technically inadequate because of sample size, information regarding formaldehyde exposure levels, or length of follow-up. As such, these studies neither prove nor refute the hypothesis that formaldehyde is carcinogenic for humans. Additional studies on humans to evaluate formaldehyde's carcinogenic potential will be completed in about one year.

To put these facts into perspective, it should be noted that pathologists have been at the forefront of almost every research effort on environmental carcinogenesis during the 20th century. Their unique vantage in diagnosing, coding, and filing malignant tumors has contributed to our realization that asbestos causes lung cancer and mesotheliomas, dioxin causes soft tissue sarcomas, alkylating agents cause leukemia, Thorotrast causes hemangioendothelial sarcoma, atomic bombs cause thyroid cancer, arsenic causes skin cancer, cigarettes cause multiple head, neck, and respiratory cancers, and so on.

It strains credulity to be told that any potent carcinogen could be wafting up the noses of the investigators themselves for all these years, and that they lacked the curiosity, intellectual acumen, and technical expertise to appreciate what was happening to them and their histotechnologists.

In view of these facts and the perspective in which they must be interpreted, the recommendation of the National Toxicology Program Interagency Regulatory Liaison Group--"It is prudent to regard formaldehyde as posing a carcinogenic risk to humans"--is premature if not farfetched. At present, no evidence supports this hypothesis, and much circumstantial evidence suggests it is without merit. The sky has not been shown to be falling, as Chicken Little would have us believe.

The formaldehyde scare brings to mind another scare generated by the Food and Drug Administration several years ago. You may recall that after saccharin-sweetened diet soft drinks were already on the market, it was demonstrated that rats fed large doses of saccharin were at increased risk of developing bladder cancer. Despite the lack of epidemiologic evidence that these findings could be extrapolated to humans, the FDA cited the Delaney Act (which forbids the use of food additives that are known or suspected carcinogens) and attempted to ban saccharin sweeteners in diet soft drinks.

After enormous public and Congressional pressure had been brought to bear, saccharin-sweetened soft drinks were sustained. Hundreds of millions of diet soft drink containers later, there is still nothing more than speculative evidence that saccharin does to humans what it does to rats. The formaldehyde debacle promises to be a replay of the saccharin caper.

Public bodies and learned consultants have a responsibility to alert us to dangers and potential dangers. At the same time, they have a responsibility to exercise their intellectual faculties to the fullest.

When they fail in the latter, as they did with saccharin and now with formaldehyde, they incite panic in themselves and those impressionable enough to believe their dire predictions: The moral of Chicken Little should not be forgotten.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Soloway, Henry B.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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