Trust in Chemicals Unhealthy

Appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice, August 2007, page 10.
  • Southern Sierran, March 2007.

Trust in Chemicals Unhealthy: U.S. Can Learn from European Union
Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.


About 80,000 chemicals have been introduced since World War II, produced at facilities like this one.

WWII marked the introduction of man-made chemicals into modern society, revolutionizing many of the consumer products we use every day.

Consider the following. Plastic cotainers, non-stick cookware, and cleaning products stock our kitchen pantries. Our foods are grown with liberal use of synthetic fertilizers. Hardly a wall anywhere goes unpainted. We sit, walk, and sleep on materials that do not derive from nature. Few of us can image getting through a hectic day at work or school without the aid of computers, telephones or other chemical-laden electronic devices. Even popular high-tech clothing fabrics are 100% synthetic.

We do not give much thought to what chemicals went into the manufacture of these everyday commodities. We trust whole-heartedly that any chemicals used are safe and well regulated by the government. But, are they?

U.S. Policy Fails to Protect Public:
About 80,000 chemicals have been introduced since WWII. According to a 2005 report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US EPA has health & safety test data on only 15% of these. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gives the EPA the authority to obtain safety information on chemicals and regulate those deemed toxic to humans or the environment. Although manufacturers must submit some information to the EPA on a new chemical at least 90 days before its planned production, testing for toxicity is not a requirement and is not typically performed voluntarily. Even when the industry does undertake such testing, there is no onus to make the results available to public scrutiny.

The GAO found that the EPA had sought toxicity testing on only 200 of the 62,000 chemicals that went into production before the EPA first began its chemical reviews. The EPA’s strategy is to rely primarily on screening models of toxicity based on the similarity of one substance to other known compounds, in lieu of direct testing. Most substances thus are released into commerce with little or no testing, and as such public safety is entrusted in large part to the manufacturers.  The EPA may step in later on, typically after scientists outside industry outline suspicions of health effects in lab animals or vulnerable human populations. Testing is then undertaken, often at the public’s expense, to clarify a compound’s danger and eventually to set safety limits for human and environmental exposure. The EPA’s approach is weak also in that it relies primarily on voluntary industry bans rather than enforced ones. Even asbestos, a known human carcinogen, is under a voluntary ban.

E.U. Adopts Revolutionary REACH Approach: Now jump across the Atlantic to the EU where a much more precautionary approach has taken hold. In December 2006, the European Parliament adopted ground-breaking legislation referred to as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals). It shifts the burden for insuring the safety of chemicals to the producers. Any manufacturer that produces or imports a chemical in volumes of 1,000 kg or more per year must register it with a newly formed European Chemical Agency and provide documentation of its health effects and safety. Chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive abnormalities or that build up in the environment will require special authorization. In those cases, manufacturers also would be required to switch to safer alternatives, or if none exist, submit plans to find a substitute. The chemical industry here in the US, along with the Bush administration, lobbied against the REACH legislation, knowing that reverberations would be felt by anyone wishing to trade with the EU.

Why REACH is Necessary: Skeptics of REACH might ask if this increase in accountability by industry is really necessary. The response is that study after study in the last decade has revealed a shocking buildup of toxic industrial chemicals in human tissues and throughout our air, water, and soil. Examples abound. Urine samples in Americans reveal widespread contamination with chemicals used to soften plastics and linked to abnormal development of the male reproductive tract. Flame retardants that derail normal nervous system development are showing up in human breast milk, polar bears, dolphins and sharks. House dust in Cape Cod homes are found to contain a whole host of substances referred to as endocrine disruptors since they interfere with our hormonal systems. A chemical used to make non-stick cookware, which has been linked to cancer and is resistant to breakdown in the environment, has been measured in human blood samples from five continents. Perhaps most startling is a report in 2005 from the non-profit Environmental Working Group that an average of 204 industrial chemicals showed up in the umbilical cord blood of newborns in the US, most known to be toxic.

Surely, something is amiss with a policy that allows industrial toxins to build up in breast milk and in newborns. The first and foremost job of government is to protect its citizens. Our government not only has failed to meet this mandate but also has undermined our image in the world as a pacesetter in the area of environmental protection. In implementing REACH, the EU has taken a bold and laudable step into the lead.

Certainly, the noble thing for the US to do at this point is first admit that we blew the chance for leadership and, second, fall in step with the EU in updating our approach to regulation of chemicals. Let us not turn this into another missed opportunity like “Kyoto” where the world looks to us, the richest nation in history, and wonders why we fail to do what is obviously right to safeguard both our people and the environment.

Keywords and Tags: REACH, chemical safety, toxic chemicals, man-made consumer products, synthetic, EPA, cancer, reproductive abnormalities, umbilical cord blood, breast milk, climate change, economy, energy, environment, global warming, green business, health, pollution, science, sustainability.

© Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D. and Boogie Green, 2005-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D. and Boogie Green with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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