It isn’t easy being a Koch brother these days. Preferring to stay behind the scenes and fund causes that have little benefit for society yet plenty for their business portfolio, they have found that more of their schemes have been revealed. They have been funding California’s Proposition 23, which would overturn AB32 (California’s emissions reduction law); their funding of purported groups denying climate change makes ExxonMobil’s contribution look like that of a dime store’s, and now they are behind an organization that is attempting to convince the public that formaldehyde is safe.
It is true that formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical compound that occurs in the environment, as is the case with arsenic, methane, and other gases, minerals, and compounds. Of course, plenty of chemicals that risk toxicity at a high level include carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Formaldehyde is in some pharmaceuticals, building materials, and yes, those animals that you dissected in your high school biology classes. Millions of tons are manufactured around the world annually, and it is naïve to believe it could be replaced with substitutes overnight. Mind you, I am a little biased as I had an uncle who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and some research has linked formaldehyde to ALS. With the dependence on products that make life convenient, lies the possibility that well, some inconvenience could occur in the long run.
Many chemicals can be safe when they are handled with integrity and are not overused. But that is not always the case, which is why health issues have been documented over the years. And consumers should know what is in the products they buy and what various organizations have stated about toxicity levels in chemicals present in those products. California’s Air Resources Board, for example, has suggested that formaldehyde could be a potential air contaminant; the EPA, meanwhile, has identified formaldehyde as a possible carcinogen. Like many chemicals, synthetic or “from nature,” there is always the “possibility” that a material is harmful. So as is the case with many things in life that we encounter, there is a possibility that something could cause us harm and make us sick—so as consumers, we should expect those risks to be articulated and transparent, and then make that decision whether we will go with product or find an alternative.
This is particularly helpful in the case of building materials, especially with the push to make homes more energy efficient. Plenty of documentation exists that often the most harmful air we breathe is in our homes and offices—and this is coming from someone who’s lived in Seoul, the San Joaquin Valley, Baltimore, and LA. Formaldehyde is in many building materials, which are great if they help us make our homes energy efficiently, to a point. It is beneficial that we prevent heat from leaking out of our homes, but there is the trade-off of having more contaminants like formaldehyde accumulate in the home—hence the need to either ban the use in building materials, or at least ensure we have a market where alternative products exist. I make the analogy to a friend who does not allow her kids to drink cola or other potentially unhealthy snacks in the home—she cannot control what they eat at school or at friends’ homes, but she sure can make the choice in the environment she controls. So I look at building products and other goods the same way—I may work in an office built before I was born and likewise cannot control the conditions of other places that I visit, but I sure can make those decisions about where I spend my evenings and weekends.
I am not sure what is more offensive—industries like tobacco and asbestos that denied any dangers associated with their products for decades, or a purported industry group that shows pictures of multicultural families that say that hey, formaldehyde is all right because it is in trees. And to that end, it is even more absurd when some make the assertion that those who advocate a clean energy economy or dare I say, environmental causes, are exerting some kind of socialist “mind control” or crass government-subsidized agenda, when it is well documented that industries from fast food to oil exploration companies have been extracting government subsidies for years—leaving the rest of us to pay for and subsidize the costs, whether they create health epidemics or leave behind massive environmental cleanups.
It is not my or anyone’s business to tell Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, or my neighbors where or how to spend their money. But when characters like the Koch brothers fund phony organizations with bucolic sounding titles to obfuscate an issue or take down anyone who brings up another point of view, or speaks out to expose the risks with a product on the market, it is anyone’s perogative to expose them for the frauds that they are. Let me have a choice, and do not passive aggressively dupe us into thinking that something that may pose a danger, even if a small one, to be 100% safe.
Of course, I may change my mind when I hear about the cancer patient who spent too much time hanging out with trees.