Sunday, June 15, 2008

Saving us from ourselves

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If the average American knew just how unregulated the chemical industry is in this country, there would be an epidemic of people crawling under the bed with an organic cotton blankie and refusing to come out.

It really is insane the way our country sacrifices common sense and consumer safety on the altar of the free market, and goes about regulation exactly backwards.

Since the passage of the benign-sounding Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, banning and/or restricting chemicals is extremely difficult. That law, the nations chemical policy, grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals and compounds that were in commercial use at that time. Chemicals developed after the law went into effect did not have to undergo safety testing. Instead of oversight, chemical companies were trusted with the task of self regulating. They were asked - but not mandated - to report toxicity information to the government, and the government would decide if further testing would be necessary.

In the 32 years since Gerald Ford signed the bill into law, the EPA has required additional studies for a mere 200 chemical compounds that are components of consumer products - a tiny fraction of the 80,000 chemicals in use in this country, and the government has had little or no information on most of those chemicals.

Only five chemicals have been banned since the TSCA became law.

The barriers to regulating the chemical industry are so high that the EPA has been unable to ban asbestos, even though we know that asbestos is a carcinogen, and has been banned in more than 30 countries. Instead of regulating, the EPA is hogtied, forced to rely on the chemical industry to voluntarily stop producing and using suspect chemicals.

If you think that the chemicals you buy to unclog your drain, scrub your tub, clean your counters, etc have been tested for safety, you are mistaken.

In this country, regulation happens after the fact.

I told you it's nuts the way safety has been suborned to capitalism. Do you believe me yet?

Ironically, capitalism and the global economy is forcing companies in this country to change their ways if they want to have access to the 500 million strong consumer market in the European Union.

This month the EU rolled out the first of stringent new restrictions on chemicals that are linked to health problems. These changes are forcing U.S. industries to find new ways to produce a wide range of everyday products if they want to continue to access EU markets. The new regulations require that companies to show that a chemical is safe before it can be used in commercial products.

Manufacturers are grumbling, complaining that compliance with the EU laws will add billions to their costs and increasing the price of some products. The Europeans calmly maintain that there is no need to comply - unless they want to continue to sell their products in EU markets.
"There's a strong sense in Europe and the world at large that America is letting the market have a free ride," said Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The Europeans believe . . . that being a good global citizen in an era of sustainability means you don't just charge ahead and destroy the planet without concern for what you're doing."

Under the E.U. laws, manufacturers must study and report the risks posed by specific chemicals. Through the Internet, the data will be available for the first time to consumers, regulators and potential litigants around the world. Until now, much of that information either did not exist or was closely held by companies.

"This is going to compel companies to be more responsible for their products than they have ever been," said Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International Environmental Law. "They'll have to know more about the chemicals they make, what their products are and where they go."

The new European laws have been several years in the making, and the bu$h administration and American chemical companies have fought against them every step of the way.
Four U.S. agencies -- the EPA, the Commerce Department, the State Department and the Office of the Trade Representative -- argued that the system would burden manufacturers and offer little public benefit.

In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell directed the staffs of American Embassies in Europe to oppose the measure. He cited talking points developed in consultation with the American Chemistry Council, a manufacturers trade group.

Mike Walls, the chemistry council's managing director of government and regulatory affairs, said that 90 percent of its members are affected by the E.U. laws and that some cannot afford the cost of compliance. "We're talking about over 850 pages of regulation," he said.

The E.U. standards will force many manufacturers to reformulate their products for sale there as well as in the United States. "We're not looking at this as a European program -- we're buying and selling all over the globe," said Linda Fisher, vice president and chief sustainability officer for DuPont and a former EPA deputy administrator.
DuPont alone is expecting to spend tens of millions of dollars to register chemicals they produce for sale in the EU member countries. They expect 20 to 30 of the substances they register to be on the EU "substances of very high concern" list.

One such chemical is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a substance used in the manufacture of teflon and many other consumer goods, including food packaging, carpeting and clothing, and electronic equipment. PFOA is a "suspected" carcinogen and builds up in human tissue and the environment. DuPont has already paid a $16.5 million dollar settlement to the EPA after the agency charged that the company had illegally withheld information about health risks posed by PFOA, and about water pollution near a West Virginia plant. Dupont and other companies have agreed to cease production of PFOA by 2015.

Toxic chemicals fall into three main categories - carcinogens, mutagens and endocrine disruptors. Carcinogens are chemicals that have been causally linked to increased rates of cancer. Mutagens alter the genetic information, usually the DNA, of organisms, increasing the incidence of mutations above the normal background levels of incidence. Mutagenic compounds are of particular concern to women of childbearing age. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic hormones and interfere with the normal operation of the endocrine system. The theory of endocrine disruption posits that toxicity can occur at much smaller levels of exposure than carcinogenic and mutagenic agents, because the endogenous hormones produced by the ductless glands of the endocrine system and secreted into the body are present in low concentrations, those of us who are proponents of endocrine disruption theory posit that exogenous disruptors can have an effect at lower concentrations than are necessary for carcinogenic or mutagenic effects to manifest. The mechanisms of endocrine disruption are being studied now, and previously unknown mechanisms are emerging. In December a study by researchers at UC Davis was released that revealed a previously unknown disruptor mechanism in antibacterial agents added to hand soap. Previous mechanisms have interfered with hormonal function by binding to receptors and blocking the hormones from attaching to the receptors and functioning properly. The researchers at UCD found that the chemical added to soaps amplified the effects of hormones and led to pronounced prostate growth in male rats.

We also point to increased rates of infertility, diabetes and other disorders of the endocrine system. The mechanisms of endocrine disruption are under study right now, and I am constantly on the lookout for new information that can either verify or disprove my loosely-help belief that the theory is probably correct. (No scientist worth his or her salt ever holds any theory other than gravity or evolution too tightly - as a freshman in college a crusty old chemistry teacher told me that the job of a scientist is to constantly try to prove yourself wrong. That bit of wisdom, the dipole moment, and electron spin are what I remember the most from the multiple classes I took from him.)

Since a fair chunk of my career was spent in endocrine research, and since most people are at least casually acquainted with carcinogens and mutagens, I want to concentrate on endocrine disruption. I have had questions for a long time that I can't answer - I am not on any of the research teams that might be looking for those answers, and even if I was, giving them would be so far above my pay-grade that I would never "go there" without the paper in hand, after it had been stringently peer reviewed by scientists whose work I know and trust.

It would be irresponsible of me to make any assertions, so I feel compelled to point out specifically that my questions are speculation only.

What I can do is tell you, the reader, what my questions are and give you a little bit of background to let you know why I ask them.

Since the TSCA became law, my generation, which was in adolescence at the time, has come of age and we are now middle aged, one generation has been born and raised to adulthood, and another is now entering young adulthood.

It is those young adults coming of age now that concern me the most. At the end of my 24 year career I routinely saw something that I had never seen - not once - in the entire first 15 years. Type II diabetes in kids. Part of it is diet and exercise - but we have always had chubby kids who didn't eat a proper diet or get enough exercise, but none of them were diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a disorder of the endocrine system. The lines have so blurred that we have renamed juvenile diabetes type I and adult-onset type II.

The question that I have is this: Is there something in the environment that we are using now that was not previously in use that is affecting the ability of insulin receptors to function properly?

Is there a connection between increased rates of infertility and everyday chemicals?

We know that a lot of things have changed over the last thirty years. For starters, meat is produced far different than it was back then. Thirty years ago, beef was for the most part grass-fed on family farms and ranches, and it took a steer 4 years to mature and go to market. No longer. Now, most meat comes from feedlots and CAFOs. Those industrially-raised animals are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics to cut the time it takes to bring a steer to market to about 14 months. Those growth hormones are residual in the meat at the supermarket, as well as in dairy products.

Food packaging has also undergone a revolution that is not for the better. When I was a kid, soda pop (which wasn't made from corn syrup back then) came in aluminum cans or glass bottles, not in plastic; and meat came in butcher paper, not polystyrene trays and plastic wrap, and plastics were not so prevalent in our everyday life. The dairy products we buy in boxes, like yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream, used to be packaged in waxed cardboard, but now come in plastic tubs. Plastics, made from petroleum, have multiple toxicities identified.

So what can you do to protect yourself and your kids when your government cares more about the bottom lines of Vulcan and Dow and DuPont than they do the health and well-being of the citizenry they are sworn to protect by virtue of the jobs they hold, while we wait for responsible European laws to take effect and work their magic on the American marketplace?

Study, research and spend your money wisely. Of course buying organic when at all possible is a given - but look at the packaging of what you are buying, too. Throw open your cupboards and scrutinize the ingredients - then go to the internet and look up the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) on the chemical ingredients listed on the products you use routinely. Be a responsible consumer and don't spend your hard-earned money on things that are likely to poison you.

And be prepared to save your own ass, because the government doesn't care about you., or me, or the man behind the tree - unless one of us is a captain of industry. I dunno about you, but the last thing I was a captain of was a pool league team.

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