URI Scientist: Chemical Stew Brewing in Oceans

By ecoRI News staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A University of Rhode Island scientist who studies chemical pollutants in the marine environment is calling on Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act or similar legislation that would reduce the growing number of harmful chemicals in the world’s oceans.

“There are thousands of chemical compounds that are used by industry for all sorts of purposes, and it turns out that they aren’t well regulated at all,” said Rainer Lohmann, a professor in the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

Lohmann said that when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was started and the first legislation was passed to regulate chemicals in the environment about 100,000 compounds that were in use at that time were grandfathered. “No one suggests that all of those are bad, but it doesn’t take many of them to create a serious problem,” he said.

An international agreement to ban the worst of these compounds, called the Stockholm Convention, went into effect in 2004, but the United States has not ratified the agreement. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, but efforts to enforce it have been overturned in court. As a result, Lohmann said the United States has no effective legislation to regulate chemicals.

He supports passage of the Safe Chemicals Act, proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to reduce the dangerous toxic chemicals found in everyday consumer products. The bill gives the EPA the tools to require health and safety testing of toxic chemicals and places the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe.

“Our current system is based on proving harm after it has occurred,” Lohmann said, “and that’s not a wise use of resources. Currently, we have to wait for a compound to be produced in such huge quantities before we see its negative effects, and then we start to review and regulate it. In most cases, we don’t know if something is harmful for decades, and that’s a very dangerous approach.”

Lohmann said the European Union is taking a precautionary approach that he believes the United States should follow. “If you want to produce a chemical, you have to determine all the potential downstream effects before you get the approval,” he said.

Because of what Lohmann said is the poor track record the United States has for regulating chemical compounds, he believes all compounds that are on the market should be re-screened, beginning with those produced at the highest volume.

“You can predict which ones are likely to be harmful based on their chemical structure,” he said.

Several private groups have already studied most of the 50,000 compounds in use today and identified about a thousand that have properties that would make them toxic, persistent in the environment and accumulate in tissues.

“I’ve been studying ocean basins from the Arctic to Antarctica, and I can find legacy compounds present everywhere I look,” Lohmann said. “Their concentrations are slowly going down while new ones are increasing. It’s an uphill battle, especially when we’re doing little to regulate them.”

The URI scientist decided that the best way he can contribute to solving this hazardous problem is by advocating for regulations and legislation.

“I’ve realized that the reason people like me are needed right now is that we are living in a world full of unsafe chemicals, and changing the status quo would help a lot,” Lohmann said. “Most of our bodies work from biochemical cues — that’s how we grow and function — and now we have these manmade chemicals that may be messing up the signaling, especially for young people. I’m a father now, and the last thing I want to happen is for my daughter to have adverse effects from chemicals that she shouldn’t even have in her body in the first place.”