A Chemical (Battle) Cry

Last fall,  the respected magazine, Scientific American, posted an intriguing (or alarming, depending on one’s point of view) infographic titled “The Great Chemical Unknown.”

It noted that an estimated 50,000 chemical compounds are used by American industries and their customers and that about 300 have gone through rigorous safety testing and only five – a short list of notorious environmental contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins -  have been officially banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, this represents a conservative estimate of the situation. A story in Time magazine, also last year, put the numbers at 80,000 compounds circulating in the U.S. marketplace of which only 200 have been tested. In other words, whatever the exact total,  the phrase “chemical unknown” applies perfectly here.

Why is it so difficult to get accurate informal on chemical exposure here in the United States?   As it turns out, the country relies on a thirty-five year old law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, for oversight of potentially hazardous compounds. And this law is – let’s just say – timid in its approach to regulation. In point, it doesn’t actually require that chemicals be registered or proven safe before they are put to use.  There is provision to ban a compound but it must be first be shown as an extremely bad actor.  For instance PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ended up on the short list only after it was discovered that they were poisonous, probable human carcinogens, and extremely durable – capable of remaining in the environment (or the human body) for decades. By that time, of course, they had contaminated communities across the country.

Of course, even being a known bad actor hasn’t guaranteed protective measures under the old law. “How weighted is the TSCA toward industry?” the Time piece asks. “The law didn’t even give the EPA enough power to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen that still contributes to the deaths of more than 10,000 Americans a year.” It’s worth noting that, by contrast, the European Union  banned production and use of asbestos in 1999.

Photo credit: 123rf.com

Why you may ask is the subject of our so-called regulation of toxic chemicals getting so much attention now? Last year,  a cadre of federal legislators moved to in replace the 1976 law, proposing the House Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 and the Senate Safe Chemicals Act of 2010.  Both of these would require manufacturers meet new and tougher safety standards, not only for new compounds but for those already on the market.

Of course, neither of these have so far inched their way into actual law. Why not, you wonder?

You might postulate – and many do -  that the well-heeled  chemical industry is doing its influential best to fend off such restrictions.  The Scientific American article raises the possibility that under stricter regulation – something more comparable to Europe and Canada oversight – the number of compounds requiring stricter controls would rise to between 5,000 and 15,000 rather than, um, geez, five.

But U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who introduced the Senate bill,  says the delay is mostly a result of fine tuning of the legislation, which actually has gained support from chemical manufacturers. Last month, new versions of the legislation were reintroduced in both houses. Among the updates were guidelines directing the EPA to develop a risk priority list, rather than attempting to deal with tens of thousands of untested compounds in, say, alphabetical order. That change was among those suggested by the American Chemistry Council (the national association of chemical manufacturers) which has publicly endorsed an updated law.

Since the new bills were introduced in mid-April,  advocates have been working to gain support from the public – or even just to gain notice. Nurses, pediatricians, health advocacy groups, environmental groups are among others who have all urged passage.  A piece this week in The New York Times, focused on the suspected evils of plastics (notably the suspected endrocrine disruptor,  bisphenol A), directly urged support “We will have to make as much noise as newborns to get Congress to pay attention to Senator Lautenberg’s proposal and, more broadly, to chemical regulation.”

The cost of our inadequate system of chemical regulation – not to mention the way we’ve skimped on honest investigation – has brought us to a point that the word “chemical” itself has become something to be feared. I want to note here that the old TSCA isn’t the only law allowing the government to regulate risky compounds. The EPA pursues pesticides, for instance, under a different set of rules. The FDA gains its authority over pharmaceutical compounds under yet another.

But the same principle applies to all. It’s ridiculous to argue that a laissez-faire approach in any of these cases has – or will – brought us safety or the perception of being protected. As a consequence,  industrial chemicals have developed a reputation akin to horror movie monsters, to those mysterious things that go bump in the night.  Some of these materials undoubtedly deserve those fears; others are unfairly tarnished by the current situation. We’re afraid of what we cannot see in the dark, what we don’t understand, and our government, I’m afraid, has been complicit in allowing  chemical fears to spring out of shadows.

The new legislation won’t undo years of mistrust. Nor, reasonably,  will it give us instant clarity on tens of thousands of chemical compounds. But it’s a lot more honest than the old law and it will, I hope, allow us to build a more honest assessment of our chemical risks. We’ve done enough bumping around in the dark on this one. And, if as the Times piece suggests, that that passage of these laws requires that we make the noise of newborns, then consider this blog post in the nature of a baby-like howl.

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23 Responses to A Chemical (Battle) Cry

  1. Sam Vance says:

    Was that proposed legislation one where they tried to slip in a BPA ban? The trouble is in convincing people to trust the science and NOT over-react. For example, BPA appears in such low amounts that even in the highest concentration found in food(16oz can of green beans, I believe), a person would still need to consume several hundred cans(juice and all) a day to get sick from the BPA.

    I think the fear is that many of these chemical limits will be banned instead of regulated to safe levels. You have many groups that just want these things banned and are on the ‘unsafe at any level’ banned wagon(see what I did there?). Of course, any rational science minded person knows that the dose makes the poison. I am not opposed to regulation at all, I just fear those who have scared themselves into a frenzy and are eager to over-regulate.

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed that there are always agendas, from all sides, with an issue like this. My real point here is that the lack of well-thought out regulation – and more than that, information available to the public – has fed into the very fears that you mentioned. Certain compounds, like BPA, catch the public’s attention more than others, which may indeed be more dangerous. Our existing system has led to a kind of information chaos and I do think that the current push for new regulations is necessary to impose some rational order here.

    Agreed also that the dose makes the poison. But it’s also true that the poison makes the dose.

  3. hesham says:

    1) To ban something u must convince the stakeholders & to do that u must talk in to important things-i mean imp. in their consideration- first/Money , second/politics……all governments do not care about public health unless it will affect their economy…u just mentioned the chemical battle here which affect people, but u forgot the pollutants produced from those developed countries which is fatal by all means..& they never put serious limits for it or ban it.
    2)something u don’t know about….there r alot of harmful chemicals governments know about its harm but they never inform the public for many reasons…the most important one is Economical & the second is the public panic …they r sure that if people know about these harmful things the eat,drink &/or breath they will panic….so governments let them die slowly.
    sorry for this pessimistic comment but really it is real & there r alot of evidences for that ….by the way im a student in last year at faculty of science…chemistry & environmental science …thx

  4. Julie Kinyoun says:

    I hadn’t heard of a risk priority list- maybe this is the answer to the ten-thousand compound list of compounds to classify. This affects shipping labels as well as general toxicity information available via MSDS and other product information to the consumer.

    When I worked in regulatory the sheer number of compounds to be assessed for shipping, labeling, packaging and tariff duties was beyond the capability of a corporate company to handle financially. How could you ever hire as many people as you would need to tackle such a job? When you have ten thousand products how can you ever classify all of them?

    Every day after work I expressed my gratitude for escaping the fate of the workers down in shipping. Little did they know they shipped the flammables with the explosives and likely shipped the toxic and corrosive compounds in everyday packaging. Glad that wasn’t me.

  5. Christopheer R Lee says:

    It does appear to be the case that particular synthetic substances attract a disproportionate amount of attention. Since potential exposures are usually low, there is much uncertainty about dose-duration-response relations, a subject that is difficult to present, even to a scientific audience.

    Some classes of synthetic chemicals are relatively neglected, particularly with respect to indirect effects. Ethers of cellulose could be taken as an example. They are used in an astonishing variety of applications from drug excipients and food additives to building materials. Some are “Generally Recognised As Safe” (GRAS) as pharmaceutical excipients. However, it is difficult to find information on straightforward aspects such as concentrations of residues of the genotoxic alkylating agents used for their synthesis. Rather less obviously, a sort of retrosynthetic formation of alkylating agents could occur by reaction with nucleophiles, particularly anions such as the anions of drug substances and sulfate (for example in gypsum drywall adhesives). Since these substances are so ubiquitous, I would have expected to find in the literature a thorough and imaginative evaluation of such hypothetical toxic hazards.

  6. David Ropeik says:

    More testing and oversight would address the public’s stigmatized fear of chemicals, and help us be safer, but research on risk perception finds many more profound reasons for these fears than you cite. These findings are laid out in detail my book, “How Risky Is it Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”, but here’s a quick summary.
    -Human-made risks are scarier than natural ones.
    -Risks we can’t detect with our senses leave us feeling powerless, and lack of control makes a risk scarier.
    -Chemical risk is associated with cancer, and any risk associated with greater pain and suffering is scarier.
    -Risks imposed on us – by industrial chemicals in our air and water and food – are scarier than risks we take voluntarily.
    -Risks from industries whose behaviors have damaged the public’s trust are scarier.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    This is a great list, David. It’s the fourth on your list that I’ve always found most intriguing. We accept the chemical risks we take ourselves constantly – from cigarette smoke (nicotine and about a zillion other compounds), beer and wine (ethanol) and in many cases these are actually more hazardous than the industrial miasma around us. Another reminder that despite the best efforts of educators – and people like you – we’re never entirely rational creatures. And if we were, we wouldn’t be so interesting.

  8. Jose says:

    Just a few little tiny details stand in the way of comprehensive toxicity testing- say, a minimum of 54 million vertebrates, and more toxicologists and lab space than exist in the entire world….


    That said, the American Chemical Council is certainly not helping things.

  9. Edward says:

    It is worth noting that though the US EPA lists 80,000 chemicals on its TSCA Inventory, the actual number in commerce is most likely much lower. Ultimately, the real number currently remains unknown. The Agency had the opportunity to reset the inventory in the last administration to determine a more accurate number of industrial chemicals in commerce. That effort would then begin a new process of prioritizing chemicals of highest concern for data collection. But the Obama Adminnistration abruptly cancelled that initiative, essentially halting an effort from which we all could have benefitted. Why isn’t THIS ever reported?? And, as a result, folks continue to misstate, out of ignorance, laziness or political expediency, the number of chemicals in commerce by citing the 80,000 on the Inventory and concluding that that’s the actual number in the marketplace.

  10. Deborah Blum says:

    Good point and you’ll notice that the Scientific American estimate was 30,000 lower. If you’ve got some good background on the decision to cancel the chemical prioritization process, I’d love to see it. Could definitely be worth another blog post.

  11. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed. Realistically, we’ll never do full out safety testing of all these compounds. What I would really like to see in addition to whatever expanded testing is possible is a dramatically expanded database. Something references all known studies on these compounds, summarizes the results, provides useful perspective. Last summer when I was researching compounds used in chemical dispersants during the Gulf Oil Spill, I found myself hunting down all kinds of journal articles and pulling information together on my own. Of course, this is what journalists should do. But so should our government, I think, be engaged in providing the best information possible.

  12. Some 40,000 researchers and clinicians this March had an open letter in Science asking the FDA and EPA to look beyond the toxicology of substances to the other ways chemicals can affect us. Here’s a transcript of Washington State University’s Pat Hunt making their case on “Living on Earth”: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=11-P13-00010&segmentID=3

  13. Richard Hendricks says:

    But Sam, what guarantee do you have that BPA content would not increase? Or where it is found? See, that’s the point of *regulation*, to *regulate* where is it found, where it is reported to be, and how much is allowed. Saying the system is fine because in once case, one chemical is not high enough to cause harm, is missing the point.

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