Chemicals Are With Us: Til Death Do We Part

Are they safe? What are the impacts? No one knows because testing is nonexistent and 'trade secrets' are more important than protecting public health.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The U.S. chemical industry manufactures about a thousand new chemicals a year. These new products are added to the growing market of concoctions that we use to freshen our breath, wash our hair, shine our cars and shampoo our carpets.

Most of these new — and potentially dangerous — chemicals hit the market with no testing. Federal law is based on the assumption that a chemical is safe until proven harmful, and the powerful chemical industry isn’t held accountable by a public that is largely apathetic to the issue.

“You don’t see chemicals in your daily life but they touch you from birth to death,” said University of Rhode Island oceanographer Rainer Lohmann, who recently testified before a congressional committee about the need for improved regulation of industrial chemicals. “We pretend to know the impact, but we’re basically relying on the human population to show us the effects. They’re experimenting with us.”

Lohmann acknowledged the many good products the chemical industry has helped develop, but he also noted that the industry isn’t capable of adequately assessing all chemicals for their safety — especially since such proof isn’t even required.

“The industry doesn’t have to supply test data unless it does testing,” Lohmann said. “So nobody does testing.”

The chemical industry is one of the United States’ largest manufacturing sectors, serving both a sizable domestic market and an expanding global market. The industry’s 8,000 or so companies produce some 80,000 products, and, in 2011, had sales of $763 billion.

The industry is regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which tasks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with managing chemical safety. TSCA works by a system of notifications that are submitted to the EPA by the industry when a company wants to market a new chemical or wants to use an old one for a new use. Notifications include information on the chemical’s composition and intended use. Toxicity data is required only if there is any. There never is.

This 37-year-old legislation does little to protect citizens from most of the toxic chemicals released into the environment, according to Lohmann and two other university researchers.

Lohmann recently co-wrote a paper entitled “Science Should Guide TSCA Reform” with Heather Stapleton, from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Ronald Hites, from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. The three scientists believe that the scientific community has valuable expertise and must be at the table during discussions about updating the TSCA.

In May, Senators Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died a month later, and David Vitter, R-La., introduced a bill, with strong bipartisan support and little scientific input, to modernize the TSCA. The bill has been viewed as a hard-fought compromise that, on balance, would give the EPA better tools to address the risks chemicals pose to public health and the environment.

If passed, the EPA would have to, among other things, find that a new chemical is likely to be safe before it could enter the market and it would be able to issue orders to require testing of chemicals, rather than having to go through an onerous rule-making process.

The bill is still in committee and is highly unlikely to be passed or even make it to the floor for a vote.

Those in favor of strengthening the TSCA, such as Lohmann and his collaborators, believe the Lautenberg-Vitter bill is a step in the right direction, but don't think it goes nearly far enough in protecting public health. They point to the stricter requirements Canada and the European Union employ to ensure chemical safety as a model. They note that decisions in both Canada and the European Union regarding chemicals are heavily influenced by science.

“The problem is so big,” Lohmann said. “The EPA can only react to a problem. It’s a major shortcoming. There’s huge money spent on defense and cyber security, but the impacts of thousands of unleashed chemicals on public health and the environmental is mostly ignored.”

The country’s current chemical monitoring system is based on proving harm after it has occurred, according to “Science Should Guide TSCA Reform.” A compound has to be produced in huge quantities before any negative effects are seen, and, in most cases, those impacts aren’t noticed for decades.

During his July 11 congressional testimony, Lohmann told lawmakers that the “current platform from which TSCA operates holds the American public hostage to the chemical manufacturers.”

“Efforts to fully understand the magnitude of persistent chemicals in the environment are hampered by the lack of basic information about the chemicals’ identity, properties, toxicology and production volume,” he told the committee, which only had three to four members present at any one time. “If TSCA was meant to protect the American public and the environment from toxic chemicals, it has failed spectacularly. We have the most ineffective chemical control act anywhere on Earth.”

When the EPA was started and the first legislation was passed to regulate chemicals, about 50,000 compounds that were in use at that time were grandfathered. Lohmann’s research focuses on organic pollutants that are worrisome because of their persistence in the environment, their ability to travel long distances, their strong bioaccumulation affecting top predators and their adverse effects in organisms.

According to the paper he, Stapleton and Hites wrote, numerous studies have suggested that there are hundreds to thousands of chemicals that have the properties of persistent organic pollutants. In fact, an international agreement to ban the worst of these compounds, called the Stockholm Convention, went into effect in 2004, but the United States hasn’t ratified the agreement.

“We’re not dying like flies every minute, but there are signs that trouble is brewing,” Lohmann said. “It would be naive to think that all these chemicals we keep putting on the market aren’t impacting our health. We should be screening chemicals more effectively to prove they are safe. That’s what any reasonable country would do.”

He points to increased childhood allergies, the rise in rare birth defects and the growing number of immune system diseases that the deluge of unregulated and unstudied chemicals are having a public-health impact.

Lohmann and his collaborators are concerned that the United States, both the government and general public, act like every new chemical is fine. They say chemical manufactures hide behind “trade secrets” to keep the public in the dark. They dismiss industry claims that tougher regulations would be burdensome and costly financially. They don’t want to hear “that’s the price we pay for living in an industrialized country.

“As long as the industry can claim confidentiality there will be no solution,” Lohmann said. “We can’t keep pretending everything is fine. We’re back to that sixties and seventies mentality where the new stuff is always better than the old stuff and more stuff is even better.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, toxic chemicals such as DDTs (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and agent orange were lauded for their many uses, and used vigorously across the country and around the world.