Toxic Ignorance is Not Bliss
Why I'm Outraged About BPA and Other Chemicals, and What We Can Do
We are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals all day long. It would be next to impossible to avoid them; they lace our lives. We sleep on chemical fire retardants in the fabrics covering our mattresses. We wake and wash with chemical soaps, and slather chemical-rich moisturizers on our bodies, shampoos on our heads, cosmetics on our faces. We cuddle our babies in plush armchairs, upholstered in fabric that is treated with stain-resistant coatings. Our toddlers cut their teeth chewing plastic toys that contain chemicals to make them soft.
We live in a society that, if anything, seems too full of rules and regulations. But that means we can trust the products that come to market; they've been analyzed and researched and exposed to exhaustive, long-range testing, right?
Wrong. Most of the synthetic chemicals we live with—and some are so pervasive that they are now in the bodies of virtually all Americans—are under-tested and under-regulated. Those bottles, those non-stick pans, shampoos and lotions, those cleaning products—so much of the stuff of everyday life—may, in fact, be harmful to our health. All those times I nestled a warm bottle into my hungry child's mouth, I may have been exposing him to toxic substances.
"Without agreeing to it...we have become the chemical industry's guinea pigs."
"Society needs to pay much more attention to this problem," says Dr. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF. "We've been complacent about it." Denison maintains an influential blog tracking the debate over chemical safety.
In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Unfortunately, the 62,000 chemicals on the market at that time were given a free pass: no requirement they be tested or assessed for safety. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has garnered some information about chemicals through voluntary submissions by industry in a program that EDF helped start, limited testing has been required on a mere 200 chemicals over the past three decades. Worse, EPA has managed to restrict only five substances—and even that overstates the agency's efficacy. The only group of chemicals entirely banned was PCBs, because Congress required it. Even Cal Dooley, the president of the American Chemistry Council, commented on EPA's incapacity in this matter: "EPA cannot make a determination on whether or not a chemical is safe for its intended use."
We should be worried about what amounts to a huge, uncontrolled human testing experiment. Without agreeing to it, without understanding it, without even knowing it, we have become the chemical industry's guinea pigs. "We have a system that puts the burden of proof on the government to show that a chemical is harmful," says Denison. "We need to flip this. The burden of proof should be on industry, to show that a chemical is safe."
The chemical most in the headlines these days is bisphenol A (BPA). Among its many applications, BPA has been used in the linings of food cans, and because it makes plastic clear and nearly shatterproof, it has been used in baby bottles. Traces of BPA have been found in the bodies of 92% of Americans.
Bisphenol A has been getting attention as scientists have released reports showing that this compound–first identified as a "synthetic estrogen" in the 1930s–is an endocrine disrupter. It has been connected to increased breast cancer risk, altered brain and breast development, altered thyroid function, recurrent miscarriage and erectile dysfunction. While independent scientists and industry chemists continue to debate acceptable levels of leaching and toxicity, some states, manufacturers and retailers have taken it upon themselves to ban BPA from baby products. Even Walmart, the world's largest retailer, no longer sells BPA baby products. While this is terrific, the federal government should ban BPA from all products. Babies always ignore labels telling them not to chew on the grown-up's stuff.
BPA seemed like a good idea at the time. A plastic bottle meant your toddler wouldn't crash to the floor holding glass in his hands. Lightweight plastic launched two year olds into the take-out habits of our dining culture: Those sweet fruit drinks, steadily leaking through the nipple, led to rampant tooth decay. Dentists began protectively coating children's teeth with–you guessed it–plastic sealants containing BPA.
BPA is a telling example of the shortcomings of America's regulatory processes. It was one of the chemicals that sailed past TSCA in 1976, and is now produced in amounts exceeding 6 billion pounds annually, even though its hormone-like properties have been known since at least the 1930s. And BPA is a harbinger of even greater trouble in the industry. Christopher Gavigan, executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, says there are many other chemicals that raise similar concerns. To name a few: flame retardants (PDBEs), phthalates (used extensively to soften plastics) and organo-tin compounds, which harm aquatic life. Denison underscores the danger: all these synthetics are in widespread use, humans have been significantly exposed to them, and there is growing evidence of their toxicity.
"We have much better science today than we did thirty years ago," says Denison. "We are gaining an understanding of our biological response to even small doses of chemicals. But we have old regulations—blind to the new science."
As consumers, we find ourselves in a familiar and uncomfortable position: individual efforts to stay safe, versus inadequate information and weak government regulations. Indeed, it often seems that government protects industry better than people. Consumers can try to avoid BPA-laden canned food. We can be vigilant about not using anything that has known carcinogens in it. We can consult websites (like those listed above on the right) to get some of that information. But there are countless undisclosed chemicals in everything we use. We have no clue where the next toxin lurks. The burden of responsibility should not be on the consumers. Manufacturers must be held accountable for the safety of the products they make and sell.
We shouldn't despair—but only because that won't do any good. We should be outraged. We should make noise, lots and lots of noise. Demand reform of the laws governing toxic substances. Demand that the EPA have the power to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals. Demand more rigorous testing. Demand transparency: Ingredients that might be harmful to human health should be disclosed. But more to the point, products made with unsafe or untested chemicals should never reach the marketplace. Because that's how they end up in our bodies, and in the bodies of our babies. When it isn't clear that even the smallest exposures to certain chemicals are safe, regulators cannot continue with business as usual. You can take action right now—tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.
Our social networks are buoyed by trust. Trust in the companies that make the things we buy. Trust in the stores we buy things from. Trust that our government makes laws to protect us. Trust that most people believe in doing no harm. But trust is earned, not assumed. And it has been broken. It is up to us to demand, more than anything else, the repair of trust between consumers, industry and government. Now more than ever, we need the retailers we have been trusting to take the lead on ensuring that we aren't being poisoned by the things they are selling. Their combined market leverage will provoke greater cooperation from manufacturers, and pressure government agencies to require transparency and proof of safety.
There shouldn't be anything to hide, should there? As with any relationship, all we're looking for is good chemistry.