Better hope you’ve got a little extra closet space. Sometime today, American industry will manufacture or import 250 lbs. of chemicals just for you. There will be another 250 lbs. tomorrow and another the day after that — every day, in fact, throughout the year. That’s a pretty big mountain of chemistry, but if we’re going to generate our usual national average of 27 trillion lbs. per year, we’ve all got to accept our share.
Twenty-seven trillion pounds of anything — never mind chemicals — is an awfully scary number. But the fact is, most industrial chemistry is entirely benign and essential to modern living — a part of nearly everything you eat, wear, drive, play with, wash with, buy for your kids or bring into your home. If you want a culture and economy even remotely like the one we’ve got, you have to accept the basic science that makes it possible.
The problem is, saying that most industrial chemistry is safe is not the same as saying it’s all safe, and the U.S. is doing a very poor job of separating the good from the bad. That can spell trouble for anyone exposed to the stuff — which is to say all of us, especially children, babies and women of childbearing age. In a new paper published in the journal Pediatrics, a team of investigators led by Dr. Jerome Paulson of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, makes a powerful case for getting our chemical-regulation house in order — and for doing it pronto.
The U.S. is not without a whole statute book full of laws regulating commercial chemistry. There’s the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, passed in 1938; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1972; and the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. All of those were the no-brainers of chemical-safety legislation — even if not everyone saw it that way when the bills were being debated — because they directly concern things we are supposed to ingest or apply to our bodies in some way. A harder sell for skeptics was the idea of scrutinizing chemicals with which we’re not supposed to have anywhere near the same intimate contact. Why in the world would you regulate the ingredients of house paint the same way you regulate the ingredients of Jell-O?
The answer was that you don’t, so in 1976, when Congress finally did get around to writing legislation that provides some protection against the potential dangers of non-food and non-drug chemicals, the law it produced was the Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA), a legislative confection that’s not much good for anything at all. The TSCA started off bad — grandfathering in any major chemicals that existed before 1976 on the assumption that they must be safe or we’d have known already — and then got worse. If industry planned to release a new chemical after that, it would be required to inform the EPA of its intentions, but not to conduct any safety testing. It would be the responsibility of the EPA itself to “demonstrate that a chemical has a high likelihood of causing harm” before it could mandate studies. Essentially, the burden of proof would be shifted from industry — which would not have to prove the safety of a product — to government, which would have to prove the danger. The result has been predictable: Of the 80,000 chemicals or chemical groups used in manufacturing, only 200 were subjected to testing under the TSCA from 1979 to 2005. And only five have been regulated under the law.
“The TSCA is so ineffective that it took a separate [amendment] so that … the EPA could regulate asbestos, one of the most dangerous toxic substances,” Paulson wrote.
There are a lot of reasons this lax oversight poses a particular danger for children and babies. For one thing, developing tissue — especially brain tissue — is more vulnerable to damage than tissue that’s already fixed and finished. For another, a child’s surface-area-to-body-mass ratio is greater than an adult’s, meaning that there is more skin surface exposed to the world relative to viscera. That, in turn, magnifies the damage even a little contact with toxins can do. Finally, pound for pound, kids eat more, drink more and breathe faster than adults, all of which can bring chemicals into the body in greater doses. Even the greater amount of time babies and toddlers spend on the floor can be a toxin vector.
“Children have unique physiologic, developmental and behavioral differences that influence their environmental exposures,” writes Paulson. And none of that takes into consideration the toxins their mothers may encounter even before they’re pregnant and pass onto them either during gestation or nursing.
Paulson and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend a host of reforms to the 1976 law, including the elimination of grandfathering; a shift in the burden of proof; a requirement that chemicals be tested both before and after they come to market; a separate analysis of how chemicals affect both adults and kids; and a grant of more direct power to the EPA to order testing. The scientists also want to allow whole classes of chemicals to be tested at once, as opposed to a separate process for each of the 80,000 substances out there. The slow, one-at-a-time scrutiny required by the current system makes an already cumbersome law all-but unusable.
Surprisingly, industry is on board with the reforms — sort of. “While children in the U.S. can expect to live longer, healthier lives than at any other point in history,” said the American Chemical Council (ACC) in a statement, “we agree that the [TSCA] needs to be modernized to further ensure the safe use of chemicals and the innovation of new products.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, NJ) has introduced a bill to do just that, but the ACC will not go so far as to endorse the legislation — in fact it actively opposes it, claiming, among other things, that it doesn’t do a good enough job of clarifying what the exposure pathways are and how to measure one-time versus aggregate exposure. Those may be legitimate concerns, but it also sounds like gentle obstructionism. “We want to get a better understanding of what is occurring and what the ramifications are,” says ACC spokesman Scott Jensen — a let’s-study-the-problem-first strategy that industries facing regulation often use.
Jensen also argues — also defensibly — that no bill that shakes up industry too much is going to have a very good shot in a regulation-hostile Congress now partly controlled by the GOP. But it’s industry itself that puts the pressure on legislators. If the ACC signed onto Lautenberg’s bill, the lawmakers might too.
Still, even if the Lautenberg bill never becomes the Lautenberg law, the TCSA, as written, is likely not long for the books. Chemistry — even lots and lots of chemistry — can be fine, provided there’s lots of oversight that goes along with it.