James J. Kilpatrick, in his column of Oct. 25, "Destruction by Press Release," used without question the press release information supplied him by the urea formaldehyde foam industry, complete with innuendo, unsupported allegations and misstatements--all faithfully echoing the industry effort to discredit the Consumer Product Safety Commission's attempts to honor the public's right to know of its progress into the investigation of what may or may not constitute an unreasonable risk to human health.
In so doing, the Sage of Scrabble, Va., is in shameful violation of what I understand to be the first rule of journalism: check your facts. Indeed, since the column appeared, I have been unable to find a single person at the CPSC with whom Kilpatrick spoke.
In reproaching the CPSC for its investigation into urea formaldehyde foam, he writes, "Formaldehyde, after all, is the most common of all industrial compounds." He then goes on to list some of its many uses in everyday consumer products and concludes, "Formaldehyde is all around us." The casual reader might very well mistakenly conclude, as has Kilpatrick, that formaldehyde by its very ubiquity is safe. In truth, the degree of safety or hazard in the various uses of formaldehyde is something scientists everywhere are burning the midnight oil to determine.
Kilpatrick then charges that "zealous staffers" of the CPSC seized upon a study that had been made of the effects of formaldehyde on laboratory rats. He states unequivocally, "the animals were exposed to unrealistically massive doses of formaldehyde fumes and, not surprisingly, some of the rats developed tumors in their noses."
Kilpatrick omits that the study "seized upon" by "zealous" CPSC staffers was, in fact, conducted by a panel of scientists from within the federal government, who for seven months examined the preliminary results of tests conducted by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology. Further, what Kilpatrick blithely refers to as "unrealistically massive doses" were found by the scientists to be "within the same order of magnitude as those to which humans are exposed."
According to the columnist, "In any common sense view, the two studies would indicate no significant risk to human beings." The federal panel of scientists found: "Formaldehyde should be presumed to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans."
With a simple phone call, Kilpatrick could have determined that there have been 2,200 complaints--not 1,600-- "many of them dubious complaints"-- involving 5,700 people. As for the dubiousness of the complaints, Kilpatrick can be assured that only cases of actual illness, sensitization or forced displacement are classified as complaints.
Kilpatrick says further without qualification, "In Massachusetts, which imposed its own state ban, the value of foam-insulated houses has dropped 25 percent." Again, if the columnist had made a telephone call to Boston to Dr. Eileen Schell, head of the Executive Office of Consumer Affairs, he would have learned that his information was false.
Finally, Kilpatrick asserts, "This is not the first time the commission has acted with such reckless disregard for human consequence." To support his ludicrous charge, he cites two cases from the mid- '70s and he uses extravagant language to state without justification that the commission "very nearly destroyed a toy manufacturer in Wisconsin" and "drove a California importer to the wall by impounding his stock at the peak of the Christmas sales season." It is revealing that Kilpatrick equates "human consequences" with business entrepreneurs and not the 30 million consumers who are injured each year by consumer products --nor the 30,000 who are killed.
I am not attempting to make a case for or against the merits of regulatory action of urea formaldehyde foam. It is my intention to delay my decision until all available data are in and have been properly evaluated. One wishes that Kilpatrick had chosen the same course.