The Quiet Menace

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Over the North Pacific, Singapore Airlines Flight 15 -- For the next four days, around the clock, the subject will be global warming as the UN Climate Conference in Bali reaches its climax. But while the Bush administration is getting tons of press for its stonewalling in Bali, back home it continues to carry out its quiet assault on the public health under the ever-loyal leadership of EPA Administrator Steve Johnson. This fall, five Nobel Laureates in chemistry and two score other prominent scientists protested Johnson's decision to approve the use of methyl iodide, a highly toxic neurotoxin and carcinogen which causes miscarriages, as a fumigant in strawberry fields. Johnson approved the chemical with the claim that, as long as farmers carefully followed the requirements for buffer zones and protective equipment, and as long as no one enters the fields for five days after application, it was safe.

Now, if there is one thing we know it is that while most farmers try to observe such requirements, some are always careless. What's more, unexpected gusts of wind, unusual rain events, and equipment failure can be counted on to happen. Currently, methyl iodide's use is limited to research laboratories, and it was the scientists who use the chemical in these very controlled circumstances who were most upset by the decision to okay it for widespread use. A strawberry field is not a laboratory, after all, and it shouldn't be used as one. In many parts of California houses abut fields, and, as any parent knows, young children are not deterred from taking a short cut to school by a sign reading, "Do not enter."

This isn't an isolated case. A few weeks ago, another EPA decision that put the public at risk had to be challenged in court by California and 11 other states. In this instance, the agency removed the requirement that those who use "small" but still potentially deadly quantities of highly toxic chemicals provide the surrounding community with information about their potential exposure. This weakening of the Right-to-Know regulations is being proposed because it will save industry money. How much money? According to EPA, the figure amounts to $6 million a year. Some 6700 chemical facilities will be effected, so, if you do the arithmetic, each facility will save less than $1,000. My guess is that writing and litigating this proposed loophole is likely to cost EPA and the taxpayers more than it saves the chemical industry, but Johnson is once again following the signals he gets from the White House to get rid of the environmental safety net.

And to remind us all that it wasn't supposed to be this way, in a recent issue of Science, editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, who used to head the FDA, reported that toxicologist, mountaineer, and Sierra Club author, Arlene Blum has discovered that Tris, a fire retardant she managed to get banned from children's pajamas back in the 1970's because it was a mutagen, has cropped up again, this time as the second most widely used fire retardant in furniture foam, whence it can easily migrate into the bodies of children (and adults) who sit on furniture containing the substance.

Now, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA), passed thirty years ago, EPA was supposed to test and remove from commerce such dangerous chemicals as Tris, but, instead, Johnson is putting his agency's resources into helping chemical plants conceal their use of toxic chemicals, and putting a new and obviously very dangerous fumigant into residential neighborhoods. Kennedy makes the point this way: "Congress should ... turn to the real task of reforming TOSCA by introducing a real proof-of-safety provision. That would stop the chemical industry from continuing to make consumer protection look like a game of whack-a-mole."

Note: The entry posted on Friday, December 7th contained a broken link, and it was an important one, as it asked readers to urge their Senators to support the energy legislation which passed last week in the House of Representatives. Your voice is still needed to help propel this crucial bill forward. We apologize for the error. Here is the correct link. Please don't hesitate to contact your Senators today.