(Illustration by Frank Stockton)
Ed Brown recalls the “funny taste” of Darth Vader’s legs. He also remembers how it never stopped him from chewing more teeth marks into his Star Wars action figure.
“I still wish I was 5 years old,” said Brown. “Playing with my little Transformers or GI Joe guys, not once did I ever think about what those things were made out of — the paint on them, or the plastic they were made out of, or the stickers on the sides of them... My parents, I’m sure they didn’t think about it either.”
Three decades later, and now a parent himself, Brown thinks about those things.
Like a growing number of moms and dads, he thinks about not only what toxic chemicals might lace his kids’ toys, but also what could contaminate school supplies, Halloween costumes, mattresses, paints, cleaners and shampoos.
Such thoughts can be overwhelming.
An estimated 26.9 trillion pounds of some 84,000 different chemicals are produced in or imported into the U.S. every year. That’s about 250 pounds of synthetic substances per U.S. resident, per day, with the potential consequences of exposures to those chemicals going beyond the individual. Researchers have calculated the cost of virtually unregulated chemical use at nearly $80 billion in annual health care costs, lost working hours and stolen IQ points. And such studies are far from comprehensive.
In addition to arguing that stiffer government regulation would mean a poorer economy, the general claim of the chemical industry is that there is too little evidence to prove sufficient harm from their products — usually because they either haven’t looked for them or because they don’t know exactly what to look for, according to critics. As Joel Tickner of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said, “We often misinterpret the lack of proof of harm as evidence of safety.” But enough dangers have been discovered to raise some red flags for a representative sample of commonly used chemicals.
Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and brominated flame retardants, for example, have earned notoriety thanks to their tightening ties with rising rates of conditions such as childhood cancer, obesity, asthma and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“Most of the toxicants we’re talking about are widespread, if not universal,” said Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “It’s not like just a few children are affected.”
Still, Brown’s concerns were initially personal. After his wife miscarried for the second time — between the births of their two healthy kids — he became suspicious of environmental exposures, especially after reading an influential study that found more than 200 industrial chemicals coursing through umbilical cord blood. Each new bit of information triggered more questions, and soon Brown’s investigation into today’s complicated chemical environment became about more than protecting his own family. He grabbed a video camera and, between shifts waiting tables at a small town Pennsylvania restaurant, visited 78 environmental experts and advocates — from Vermont to California — in search of answers. (Industry groups and government agencies refused to meet with him.) His resulting documentary, Unacceptable Levels, will be available for community screenings starting in January.
Brown said he found many of the answers difficult to understand — everything from the years, even decades, that a product can spend on the market before being proven toxic, to the lack of action that the government may take after a product is deemed dangerous.
Ed Brown, director of the documentary Unacceptable Levels. (Photo by Rayon Richards)
“The worst part, for me anyway, was learning that our corporations, our courts, and even the government, feel that all of those chemicals inside of our bodies are completely acceptable — they are an acceptable level of risk,” Brown says in his film. “And acceptable doesn’t mean good here, folks.”
A PARENT’S PREDICAMENT
Over the past few years, Brown and his wife, Lauren, have attempted to rid their family’s home of toxic chemicals. Brayden, 4, and Maia, 2, now play with wooden toys — although their parents are still careful to avoid arsenic-treated wood. They also eat organic food and use carcinogen-free personal care products.
But Ed and Lauren Brown have also learned that a parent can only go so far. A chemical ingredient could be legally left off a label, or may never have been tested for its health harms. And sometimes there are simply no safer alternatives. The Brown family TV, for example, still contains flame retardants.
“It is very overwhelming,” said Lauren. “I keep thinking, ‘What else can I do?’”
With a PhD in biology, Sandra Steingraber may have a seeming advantage in her ability to steer her two kids away from environmental toxins. In fact, she chose her family’s upstate New York home based in large part on the town’s high ratings on the Toxic Release Inventory, an EPA database that tracks toxic chemical disposal and releases in communities around the country.
Still, she too faces roadblocks. “I know the scientific literature and I’m a conscious parent. But I can only do so much as a mother,” said Steingraber, an ecologist and author. “I can’t vet every goodie bag that comes home from every birthday party. I can’t go to the nail salon and make sure there’s no formaldehyde or toluene in the air or products applied to my daughter.
“I can’t stand between my children’s bodies and the some 200 brain poisons that circulate in our economy,” she added.
David Bellinger, an expert in children’s environmental health at Harvard, has associated three of those brain poisons — lead, organophosphate pesticides and methylmercury — to nationwide drops in IQ of 23 million, 17 million and 0.3 million, respectively, based on prior studies of the average impact of environmental exposures on children’s intelligence.
So, rather than try to be her own Environmental Protection Agency or Consumer Product Safety Commission, Steingraber said she is instead looking to the federal government to fulfill its obligation to “safeguard the health of people from the things we can’t, through individual behavior, safeguard ourselves from.”
Lindsay Dahl, deputy director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, is focused on the same goal. Earlier this year, her nonprofit coalition helped lead more than 200 moms and kids as part of the National Stroller Brigade in Washington, D.C. Their mission: convince Congress to retire the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), the country’s main law regulating chemicals used in everyday products, and replace it with the stronger, more precautionary Safe Chemicals Act. That legislation, first proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in 2010, now awaits a Senate vote.
The swap would essentially shift the burden of proof for chemical safety from the current assumption that a chemical is safe until proven toxic by the EPA to a requirement for industry to prove that a chemical is safe prior to placing it on store shelves.
Of all the parents among the nearly 3,400 people who have so far attended screenings of his film worldwide, Brown said that at least nine out of every 10 had no prior idea that most of the products they buy have never been tested for effects on a child’s brain, immune or reproductive system.
“We fundamentally need better laws to protect the public,” said Dahl, “not better shopping lists.”
When Steingraber and her family moved to Ulysses, New York, in 2003, she said it “seemed like the perfect place.” Having grown up herself downwind from polluting coal-fired power plants in Illinois, she appreciated the clean air, the clean water and the region’s nonexistent history of fossil fuel extraction.
Little did she know, however, that the natural gas industry already had their eyes on the shale beneath her home. “I had no idea that the house sits on top of bedrock that contains a motherlode of methane,” said Steingraber.
Yet again, a mother’s best efforts could fall short of protecting her children from toxic chemicals. Steingraber continues to fight against fracking in upstate New York, which she believes “poses a massive public health problem.” She is further convinced that the road to TSCA reform “runs straight through our energy system.”
Byproducts from fossil fuel production are used by the chemical industry to create common goods including solvents, pesticides and plastics.
The pervasiveness and persistence of the chemical economy is obvious to Brown as well. He suggests a different course: simply embrace it.
“Ultimately, I see all of these companies — DuPont, Monsanto, Dow — as having to be part of the solution long-term. For anyone to have any illusions that those companies and their influence isn’t going to be a factor in changing chemical policy is naive,” said Brown.
The success to-date of the European Union’s progressive new chemical regulation has largely been dependent on the cooperation of many actors, including industry and other stakeholders, according to EU officials. Sen. Lautenberg is hopeful that similar collaborations will lead to new regulations that put the public’s well-being above a corporation’s bottom line.
“Since 2005, I’ve been working to protect American families from toxic chemicals by requiring chemical companies to prove their products are safe before they end up in our homes and our children’s bodies,” said Sen. Lautenberg. “Throughout that process, my door has been open to work with anyone who wants meaningful reform that protects public health. We will keep fighting for a vote in the Senate on my Safe Chemicals Act and will push to see that legislation signed into law by the President.”
The American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for the chemical industry, has been taking Sen. Lautenberg up on that offer yet remains unhappy with the current proposal.
“A modern TSCA must provide consumers with confidence that the federal regulatory system is working, while at the same time enabling America’s chemical manufacturers to innovate, compete and create jobs,” said Scott Jenson of the ACC. “We are encouraging Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to craft a new proposal that will attract bipartisan support and create a world-class regulatory system that provides for the safe use of chemicals, protects American jobs and maintains U.S. global leadership in innovation.”
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, addresses the American Chemistry Council. (David Scull/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Some advocates say they are soured by what they see as undue industry influence — whether in the form of revolving-door personnel or campaign contributions.
Todd Stedeford, a former lawyer and scientist for one of the largest makers of flame retardants, Albemarle, was recently hired by the EPA to lead a program studying the safety of industrial chemicals — including flame retardants. While advocates find this suspicious, the EPA defends their decision.
“The agency benefits from having employees from different backgrounds and experience, whether they are from the public or private sector,” according to an EPA spokesperson. “There are no concerns of industry influence given that Dr. Stedeford voluntarily recused himself from any direct involvement in matters related to Albemarle and issues related to flame retardants.”
Meanwhile, chemical interests have spent some $375 million since 2005 to elect and influence federal leaders, specifically in regards to the pending overhaul of TSCA, according to a report released in October by Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizens lobbying organization.
“Stakeholders and members on the other side of the aisle must recognize the gravity of public health risks and the widespread support for updating the law,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who has unveiled legislation similar to the Safe Chemicals Act in the House. “People are concerned about the chemicals they are being exposed to but don’t have faith in the federal government to act.”
“Industry has succeeded in becoming the gatekeeper to any efforts for reform,” added Steingraber. “There’s been lots of nascent efforts. But, in the end, the empire always strikes back.”
BURDEN OF PROOF
A look back to World War II can offer some insight into the origin of today’s industrial chemical landscape.
Under the secrecy and immediacy of wartime, companies churned out massive quantities of synthetic chemicals while taking little time to consider their safety. More immediate concerns took precedent such as putting soldiers in uniforms and equipping them with weapons — including weapons to fight malarial mosquitoes.
After the war, post-Depression economic concerns kept that manufacturing machine moving. Companies repurposed chemical goods such as nylon, BPA and DDT for domestic uses. And they did so, again, generally without pausing to think about the health ramifications.
New chemicals quickly followed suit as companies like Dupont raised the public’s support and appetite for new products — from Tupperware to televisions. Industry giant Dupont Co.’s motto reflected the widespread attitude of the day: “Better Things For Better Living … Through Chemistry.”
“In the burgeoning post-WWII economy, we were looking at all kinds of new ideas. Chemistry
created a new world, much for the betterment of humankind,” saidBrown. “Hindsight is always 20/20.”
By the time the U.S. government passed legislation to regulate toxic chemicals in 1976, some 62,000 chemicals already filled the U.S. market. That new law, while meant to regulate all industrial chemicals, actually kept the ball rolling for the chemical industry: TSCA grandfathered in most existing chemicals such as BPA under presumptions of safety despite the lack of safety testing.
The EPA reports that it has only been able to require testing of little more than 200 members of that list, due to the “legal and procedural hurdles that TSCA imposes.”
Today, the vast majority of chemicals in use remain among those first 62,000, noted Richard Denison, senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
Of the rest — the more than 20,000 chemicals introduced in the U.S. since 1976 — few of those have undergone any thorough health risk assessment either. And even when the science does prove a chemical’s harm, added Denison, the EPA’s hands tend to be tied.
“The language of TSCA requires that the EPA, before it can do any kind of regulation of a chemical, has to find the risk posed by that chemical unreasonable,” he said. “That term is not defined in the law.”
The court effectively defined “unreasonable risk” in a precedent-setting 1991 decision, which overturned a 1989 EPA rule banning most uses of asbestos. Meanwhile, the medical community had already been linking the mineral fiber with disease since 1900 when London-based Dr. H. Montague Murray reportedly lost a 33-year-old patient to pulmonary fibrosis. The patient had previously been the sole survivor of 10 men who worked in a carding room at an asbestos factory.
To have won the court’s approval on the asbestos ban, explained Denison, the EPA would have had to define a level of regulation for each and every use of asbestos while thoroughly considering all alternatives and costs.
“That essentially set up a burden that EPA has never overcome,” Denison said.
The Government Accountability Office acknowledged the agency’s predicament a few years later, after looking into the law’s ability to limit the manufacture, distribution and use of toxic chemicals. Their finding: The “act’s legal standards are so high that they have usually discouraged EPA from using these authorities.”
Harvard’s Bellinger expressed his frustration, and sense of urgency: “We need to figure out a way to be proactive, and not continue to use children as biological detectors of bad chemicals.”
The EU has been arguably proactive since 2007. That year, a landmark EU law called the Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, or REACH, entered into force.
“One of its basic elements is the reversal of the burden of proof,” said Jukka Malm, director of regulatory affairs for the European Chemicals Agency, the authority responsible for implementing REACH.
Industries that want to sell chemicals in the EU must follow systematic guidelines to ensure use of those chemicals is safe, and that safer alternatives are used where necessary. Malm’s agency is then obligated to carry out compliance checks.
“The REACH model has many of the key elements that should be part of regulatory reform of TSCA,” said Leonardo Trasande, associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at NYU Lagone Medical Center. “The emphasis is on erring on the side of caution in terms of children and other vulnerable populations.”
Other countries have begun to follow the EU’s lead, including Taiwan, China and Australia.
Of course, even with REACH, the EU needs to be able to adapt to new challenges and new science to better protect public health, admitted Malm. European authorities are involved in an ongoing discussion about how to take into account the effects of exposures to chemical combinations, he said, as well as cumulative low-dose exposures.
Scientists are finding more and more hints that standard risk assessments, which typically test chemicals one-by-one and rely on the old adage, “the dose makes the poison,” may fall short of protecting the public. Exposures to multiple chemicals may magnify the dangers. Lead and tobacco, for example, can interact to cause more harm together than each alone. Meanwhile, tiny doses of synthetic chemicals appear able to trick the body’s natural hormones.
“We are learning a great deal about how chemicals can affect our health in different ways,” said Denison.
NYU’s Trasande, for example, published a study in September that found a significant association between levels of BPA in kids’ urine and obesity, after accounting for other factors such as caloric intake and television watching. BPA is currently banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from sippy cups and baby bottles but continues to be used in everything from plastic water bottles to the lining of aluminum cans.
The obesity epidemic, said Trasande, may not be fully explained by a lack of exercise or overeating — although drinking cans of soda could pose the double threat of hormone-altering BPA and extra calories. And obesity’s societal price tag is one of many potentially costly consequences of chemicals not included in the $76.6 billion he associated with common childhood conditions in 2008.
Unfortunately, as Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for the nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, noted, current U.S. regulatory rules are handicapped from responding to any of this new science.
“TSCA never even responded to the old science,” he said.
The Safe Chemical Act would not only give the EPA the legal authority to require testing to identify and restrict toxic chemicals — both those on the grandfathered list and those coming through the pipeline for the first time — but it would also compel the agency to update their scientific methodologies to ensure those assessments consider the same subtle health effects that scientists are now seeing, explained Igrejas.
As other countries move forward with their own stricter chemical policies, Igrejas pointed to another economic consequence that might be worth considering: “Made in America” could no longer be a selling point but rather a warning label.
Brown’s parents, since seeing their son’s film, have begun changing their own buying habits. They now choose organic products whenever possible. Yet, they too, have found a revised shopping list isn’t always sufficient.
His mom recently came home from a salon with a bottle of shampoo labelled “organic”. Brown recalled reading the names of several synthetic chemicals on the back label, just as he once did when narrowing the cause of Brayden’s eczema down to a baby shampoo. “People want to do the right thing,” he said, “but turns out it’s still just as wrong.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.