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Our Unbalanced Chemical Burden

Chemicals rinsing wood

The year 2014 started with a claxon blare of emergency warnings: 300,000 West Virginians were given urgent instructions not to drink or even touch their own tap water. 

But 300 million other Americans could also hear the alarm's sound as the story grabbed nationwide media attention. That was appropriate. Not just because a ruptured storage tank had spilled its toxic contents into public water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia, but because the incident exposed the underlying failure in the safety of all Americans who assume they are protected by vigilant federal state and local agencies supposedly policing environmental threats.

Surprise. We are all living amid constantly increasing exposure to tens of thousands of chemicals in combinations and in doses we would never encounter in nature.

Why? Because of modern science, coupled with the industrial impulse to make money by manufacturing more and more products to make life easier and more enjoyable for more and more people. We call this progress.

Yes, there are laws on the books intended to protect us. Laws with huge loopholes demanded by special interests whose money and influence over lawmakers and lawmaking is hard to overstate. For example, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in the 1970's, some 62,000 chemicals that were already in wide use were granted automatic approval under legislation that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring them to be safety tested unless scientific evidence already existed showing them to be dangerous. And these days the EPA, the big bulldog guarding public health, has also been granting conditional licenses for pesticide makers to introduce new, untested chemical products for food crop treatment under fast-track authority also imbedded in the law. Conditional licenses can last up to 20 years. 

Today 84,000 chemicals are in commercial use in manufacturing and agriculture. The number is growing, and the vast majority have never been tested and evaluated at all for safety by any regulatory authorities. The stuff is in our food and food packaging, cosmetics, in the clothes we wear and in household products of all kinds. So much for toxic substance control.

Doctors and scientists are finding many links between chemicals widely in use and increases in leukemia, brain, breast and childhood cancers, asthma and certain birth defects. Chances of developing learning and development disorders, including autism, and endocrine disruption that effects development, metabolism, fertility and intelligence are increased at even extremely low doses. Whether that evidence is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the law is subject to much debate but little or no action. And so it goes.

This is the way things work, because we believe so much in balancing interests and promoting a vigorous economy. Avoiding over-regulation is an important part of all that, as so many of those serving in elected office believe as they go about passing laws and blocking laws and collecting campaign contributions to help them remain in office. Most people know by now that much of that money comes from chemical companies and manufacturers who use those chemicals in their products and who of course employ many hard-working Americans who want to keep their jobs. Strictures on enforcement actions are in place not only in the EPA but also at the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers For Disease Control, and the Agriculture Department, where targeted budget constraints can cripple enforcement as effectively as can loopholes. And the conflict between public health concerns and private interests is even worse at many state and local agencies.

Since the effects of long term exposure to chemicals is slow and subtle, and because medical science is boosting life expectancy for so many of us, there is no sense of crisis, no emergency alarm. But look around. Not everyone is enjoying a longer life and good health.

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