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.
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.