No, the government isn’t going to come take your trains

Friday’s news that the Department of Health and Human Services have added formaldehyde to the list of known carcinogens and styrene to the list of potential human carcinogens caused a rumble in some of the circles I run in.

Let’s calm down, everyone. This doesn’t mean the government is going to send FBI agents to your door, guns in hand, confiscating your plastic trains and toys. The bottom line is that there is some danger for industrial workers who are exposed to the raw chemicals, but comparatively little danger to the consumers who posses plastic products made from those chemicals.

This polystyrene Lionel freight car poses no significant health hazard to you or your children.

The comments I read clearly showed people hadn’t actually read the government’s reports. So let’s look at what they actually say before jumping to conclusions, whether that conclusion is disposing of all plastics in your home immediately or spouting off about nanny states and government agencies needing to justify their existence.


The reports are available at

To the typical consumer, the most frequent and dangerous exposure to these two chemicals comes from cigarettes. The government most certainly is not saying that plastic toys, foam, or other plastic or plastic-like products cause cancer.

Let’s take a closer look in depth at the two chemicals in question.


Formaldehyde is a chemical most of us know as a preservative. It is also used in the production of a lot of materials, including plastic, wood composites, paper, and textiles. It also occurs naturally, such as in the process of decomposition. (Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you.)

If you don’t want to read the whole report, here’s a two-page fact sheet.

We’ve known for a very long time that formaldehyde isn’t something you want to put on your pancakes. It’s not just a carcinogen, it’s toxic–drink it, and you’ll die long before you can develop cancer. We’ve known this for more than a century. In 1900, milk was sometimes treated with formaldehyde as an alternative to heat pasteurization. Volume 34 of the Journal of the American Medical Association cited 1,000 deaths in Chicago in the 1899-1900 timeframe from milk treated with formaldehyde. It stated:

Experiment (sic) made abroad seemed to indicate that formaldehyde and boric acid, the substances usually employed, are prejudicial to health, if taken even in small quantities.

Elsewhere in the same article, JAMA didn’t mince words, calling the use of formaldehyde in food treatment “dangerous” and “evil.”

It should be noted that the American Medical Association isn’t a government agency. It’s the largest professional association of doctors and medical students in the United States.

Formaldehyde made its first appearance on a DHS list of possible carcinogens during the Reagan era, in 1981. It’s still used in many consumer products, primarily as a disinfectant. Any possible danger to consumers comes from exposure from soaps, shampoos, and detergents, not on the plastic containers they come in. Or anything else made of plastic.

And this isn’t especially new. Many of the health-related books I’ve read in the past few years have been saying to avoid soaps and shampoos that list formaldehyde on their list of ingredients. Whether formaldehyde will be banned in cleaning products because of this remains to be seen. It’s already a highly regulated chemical due to its known toxicity. Whatever the U.S. and other governments decide to do, it wouldn’t surprise me if some brands started advertising on their packaging that they don’t contain it–it would be a good marketing gimmick.

Dow Corning already came out last month saying that Styrofoam doesn’t contain formaldehyde, and formaldehyde isn’t even used in its production.

With a little bit of searching, it’s pretty easy to find people who are mad that it took HHS this long to classify formaldehyde as a carcinogen. That makes me question that saying about it being possible to please some people all of the time.


Styrene is a chemical used in the production of many plastics. The “styro” in the brand name Styrofoam refers to styrene. Model kits and what we commonly call “hard plastic” toys are frequently made of polystyrene. Like formaldehyde, there are longstanding known issues with styrene that go beyond cancer. I’ve known for 30 years that burning it releases toxic fumes.

The advice regarding styrene is very direct. Stop smoking, don’t smoke around your kids, and if you work around it in its raw chemical form, wear protective clothing, gloves, a respirator, and work in a well ventilated area. The long writeup mentions the possibility of exposure from food packaging, but the short data sheet doesn’t mention that. I couldn’t find any mention at all about dangers from potential offgassing from household items containing styrene–and the stuff is everywhere. Polystyrene’s recycle code is 6, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) has a recycle code of 9.

From the perspective of a hobbyist who uses polystyrene as a material to make models, it’s

An inexpensive respirator gives protection from inhaling hazardous chemicals when working with materials containing them

pretty clear what to do. If you’re forming it into other shapes using heat, do it in a well-ventilated area and consider wearing a respirator. If you’re not already wearing a respirator while gluing polystyrene with a liquid cement, you should be, because the solvent in the liquid cement is more dangerous than the styrene.

The plastics industry isn’t happy about this chemical showing up on this particular list. And even though some people will spin this as being out of the blue, the HHS report cites documents and studies dating as far back as 1970. But when one reads the datasheet, the conditions under which styrene is potentially dangerous are rather specific. And all they’ve really said so far is that there’s potential danger. If there’s potential danger for something widely used to make food containers, by definition, investigating its safety is part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ job.

Also keep in mind that 30 years passed between the time formaldehyde appeared as a potential carcinogen and the time when it shifted into the list of known carcinogens. There’s little reason to expect drastic or quick action on styrene based on what happened with formaldehyde.

In conclusion

Some people fear cancer more than they fear the government, and some fear the government more than they fear cancer. But I see no great reason either camp should be concerned here. Take the reasonable safety precautions that you should have been taking anyway, and, as far as anybody knows today, you’re in no immediate danger.

In the early 1990s when people first started blaming cellular phones for causing cancer, a popular refrain from skeptics was that getting cancer doesn’t make one an expert on how they got it. Now, people of similar persuasions are fond of saying they’ve spent a lifetime messing around with known or suspected carcinogens, and since they haven’t gotten cancer, they must be safe. But if getting cancer doesn’t make you an expert on how you got it, doesn’t it follow that not getting cancer still doesn’t make you an expert either?

I’m not qualified to say anything about the quality of the science. But the list of sources the styrene document cites covers more than two pages. From a pure writing standpoint, they did their job. They cite and cross-reference sources, they state the problem, the conditions under which the problem appeared, and they make recommendations to mitigate the risks, all in a straight, matter-of-fact, nonsensational tone. I cannot find fault in the reporting.

There are certainly more dangerous things you can be doing with your time and money than building models or collecting trains, such as smoking. And that’s something we already knew.

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