Toxic Chemicals: The Guinea Pigs R Us

Thursday, December 17, 2009

guinea pigs When you stop being in denial and actually take a look at the vast quantities of toxic substances we are currently releasing into our air, water and soil, not to speak of the amounts we are spraying on our homes, lawns and bodies or ingesting in our food, the information quickly becomes overwhelming. Even the good news is bad: the EPA reports that the amount of chemicals released in 2008 by some 21,000 companies was 232 million pounds less than what they released in 2007. But then you learn that these companies still released a staggering 3.63 billion pounds into our air and water.

And there’s more: this EPA report, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program, covers only 666 of the nearly 82,000 chemicals registered – but not tested – for use in the things we use, wear and eat. Not all of the 82,000 are toxic, but we don’t know much about most of them, so when some of them start appearing in polar bears in the arctic and newborns in Louisiana in similar quantities and patterns far from the companies that use them, it’s difficult to pinpoint the source.

It’s also difficult to link the presence of specific chemicals to the specific problems they may be causing. The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which is supposed to enable the EPA to control the flow of industrial chemicals into the environment, is actually very limited. Elizabeth Grossman, a noted writer on the environment, writes that “the EPA has only been able to issue regulations on a handful of chemicals and require toxicity testing on about 200” in the 33 years since the TSCA was written. Its burden of proof, she says, is so great, “that the EPA has not even been able to fully restrict the use of asbestos.”

Congress is working on bills that will enable the EPA to improve this record and hopefully shift the burden of defining the effects of the chemicals directly onto the companies that use them. But even if we manage to do so against the inevitably cry that it’s “Bad for Business,” it remains difficult to establish connections between chemicals and the diseases they may cause. Erin Brockovich’s case, where she proved that the hexavalent chromium the local utility had dumped on a small town was the direct cause of the residents’ very high incidence of lung cancer and emphysema, was possible because the dumping and its consequences occurred in the same place and time.

It’s much more common to find that a chemical has so pervaded the water and soil of a region, a country – or even the world – that most people and most animals are already carrying it in their bodies. In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), perchlorate was detected for the first time in participants. Although perchlorate occurs naturally in very low concentrations, it’s best known as a major component of rocket fuel and fireworks, and is present in most fertilizers. It’s leached into the soil and ground water of most of the world. Its most significant effect is to inhibit the thyroid function, with symptoms ranging from fatigue to depression, as well as unexplained weight gain and high cholesterol.  But fatigue and depression have many causes, as does hypothyroidism. With little research clarifying the link between the symptoms and the chemical, it’s almost impossible to trace a particular incident to the presence of perchlorate. Even if the chemical is causing a widespread increase in low thyroid production and the resulting physical effects, it will take a major study to determine that, before action to restrict, or even control, the chemical can be taken.

The same study found that 90 per cent of the participants had the estrogen-mimicking compound bi-phenol A, or BPA, in their urine. BPA is a component of most of the plastics from which we eat and drink (think plastic water bottles) and with which our food is wrapped. It is an endocrine disruptor whose primary effect is to cause developmental problems in young children and animals, especially males, and is suspected of contributing to the increasing incidence of breast cancer. As breast cancer is a well-publicized cause and the evidence that endocrine disruptors are having an increasing effect on the gender and reproductive abilities of a host of animals, the presence of these chemicals in our environment is beginning to get some public attention.

But these, like many chemicals, have been added to our environment with impunity by the companies that use them, because there is no law that requires the company to show that any new chemical they decide to use is safe.  Dr Herbert Needleman, a distinguished researcher into the effects of toxic substances on the development of children, has described the current situation as “a vast toxicological experiment.” Not only Americans, but the whole human race is subjecting itself willy nilly to a constant bath of powerful chemicals, of whose effects we are mostly ignorant, or unwilling to draw the conclusions that offer themselves from the data available.

Much of this ignorance is abetted by the industries who are using these chemicals for their commercial purposes: to make their product more appealing, longer lasting, better tasting or to meet demands that, in many cases, like “whiter whites” and “cleaner cleans,” they have generated. More of the unwillingness to deal with comes from ourselves: the problem is so vast and amorphous that we don’t know where to start.

If you don’t know where to start, starting at any point is better than not starting at all. Fortunately, there are people and institutions that are writing about and researching parts of the problem, and over the next few months we will be producing a series of articles to introduce you to introduce you to some aspects of our chemical environment, in which we are all unwitting gunea pigs.

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