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Possible Link Between Formaldehyde, Lou Gehrig's Disease Found

Apr 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Research  into the connection between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, and 12 common chemicals has found a link between the terrible disease and exposure to formaldehyde.  While the study found no significant link between ALS and most chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides, they found people who had been regularly exposed to formaldehyde were 34 percent more likely to develop ALS.

According to the ALS Association website, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually lead to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.  The disease is commonly known as Lou Gehrigs disease, in honor of the New York Yankees baseball player who succumbed to it in 1941. About 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year

This latest ALS study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, involved more than 1,100 people enrolled in a cancer prevention study who died of ALS. They were asked about their exposure to formaldehyde and other chemicals in 1982, and then followed for 15 years.  The scientists found that certain jobs seemed to have a much higher risk. They included beautician, pharmacist, mortician, chemist, lab technician, dentist, fireman, photographer, printer, nurse, doctor and veterinarian.  They had rates of ALS that were 30 percent higher than the general population. The more formaldehyde exposure people reported, the more likely they were to develop ALS.

While the study does not prove that formaldehyde exposure causes ALS, Marc Weisskopf, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters that the subject needs more study.  "Ideally, we would like to see people start looking at this and see whether the finding holds up in other settings," Weisskopf said.

Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis.  Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Formaldehyde has been in the news recently, after it was discovered that trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed to Hurricane Katrina victims were polluted with the chemical.  Shortly after people began living in the toxic FEMA trailers, they started reporting health problems, but federal regulators ignored the problem until public outcry forced them to act.  

Last December, FEMA finally decided to have the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conduct air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

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