I always thought I wouldn’t have to worry about some things – like, oh, incoming missiles, terrorist plots, and chemicals which could destroy me – because I thought my government would have something in place to protect me. But the recent chemical spill in West Virginia changed that: for those of you who don’t know, that was a spill of about 10,000 gallons of what is called a “coal cleaner” into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people.
When I first began looking into the chemicals used in fabrics, and finding out that the soft, luscious fabrics we surround ourselves with every day are filled with chemicals that can cause me grievous harm, I was stopped in my tracks when someone suggested that the government wouldn’t let those chemicals in products sold in the USA – so how could fabrics contain those chemicals? I didn’t have an answer for that, because at the time I too thought that “of course the government must have laws in place to make sure we aren’t exposed to dangerous chemicals”!
The current regulation of chemicals in the US dates back to 1976 and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals.
But before talking about the TSCA, let’s first take a quick look at what’s changed since 1976, because our understanding of the extent and pathways of chemical exposures has fundamentally changed since then.
We now know that the old belief that “the dose makes the poison” (i.e., the higher the dose, the greater the effect) is simply wrong. Studies are finding that even tiny quantities of chemicals – in the parts-per-trillion range – can have significant impacts on our health. We’re also finding that mixtures of chemicals, each below their “no observed effect level”, may have greater environmental impacts than the chemicals alone. In other words, toxins can make each other more toxic: a dose of mercury that would kill 1 out of 100 rats, when combined with a dose of lead that would kill 1 out of 1000 rats – kills every rat exposed.
We also now know that timing and order of exposure is critical – exposures can happen one after the other, or all at once. The possible combinations of exposures is huge and knowledge is limited about the effects of mixed exposures. During gestation and through early childhood the body is rapidly growing under a carefully orchestrated process that is dependent on a series of events. When one of those events is interrupted, the next event is disrupted – and so on – until permanent and irreversible changes result. These results could be very subtle — like an alteration in how the brain develops which impacts, for example, learning ability. Or it could result in other impacts like modifying the development of an organ predisposing it to cancer later in life.
Add to that the concept of individual susceptibility. For instance a large part of the population is unable to effectively excrete heavy metals, so their body burden accumulates faster, and their illnesses are more obvious. They are the “canaries in the coal mine” in an environment that’s becoming increasingly more toxic.
We’re finding that chemicals migrate from products into the environment (and remember, we are part of the environment).
And this is where it gets really interesting:
Each of us starts life with a particular set of genes, 20,000 to 25,000 of them. Now scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence that pollutants and chemicals might be altering those genes—not by mutating or killing them, but by sending subtle signals that silence them or switch them on at the wrong times. This can set the stage for diseases which can be passed down for generations. This study of heritable changes in gene expression – the chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations – is called “epigenetics”.
They’re finding that exposure to chemicals is capable of altering genetic expression, not only in your children, but in your children’s children – and their children too. Researchers at Washington State University found that when pregnant rats were exposed to permethrin, DEET or any of a number of industrial chemicals, the mother rats’ great grand-daughters had higher risk of early puberty and malfunctioning ovaries — even though those subsequent generations had not been exposed to the chemical. Another recent study has shown that men who started smoking before puberty caused their sons to have significantly higher rates of obesity. And obesity is just the tip of the iceberg—many researchers believe that epigenetics holds the key to understanding cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and diabetes. Other studies are being published which corroborate these findings.
With the advent of biomonitoring, and a growing recognition of the importance of early life exposures, low dose effects and epigenetics, the science linking environmental exposures to biological effects (i.e., disease) is becoming overwhelming.
And here’s why the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is not doing the job of protecting us:
- We assume the TSCA is testing and regulating chemicals used in industry. It is not:
- Of the more than 60,000 chemicals in use prior to 1976, most were “grandfathered in”; only 200 were tested for safety and only 5 were restricted. Today over 80,000 chemicals are routinely used in industry, and the number which have been tested for safety has not materially changed since 1976. So we cannot know the risks of exposing ourselves to certain chemicals. The default position is that no information about a chemical = no action.
- For those of you who don’t know, the spill in West Virginia was of “crude MCHM”, or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, one of the chemicals that was grandfathered in to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. That means that nobody knows for sure what that chemical can do to us.
- Carcinogenic effects? No information available.
- Mutagenic effects? No information available.
- Developmental toxicity? No information available. Lack of information is the reason the local and federal authorities were so unsure of how to advise the local population about their drinking water supplies. (And by the way, in January, 2014, a federal lawsuit was filed in Charleston, WV, which claims that the manufacturer of MCHM hid “highly toxic and carcinogenic properties” of components of MCHM, hexane and methanol, both of which have been tested and found to cause diseases such as cancer.)
- We assume that the TSCA requires manufacturers to demonstrate their chemicals are safe before they go into use. It does not:
- The law says the government has to prove actual harm caused by the chemical in question before any controls can be put in place. The catch-22 is that chemical companies don’t have to develop toxicity data or submit it to the EPA for an existing product unless the agency find out that it will pose a risk to humans or the environment – which is difficult to do if there is no data in the first place. Lack of evidence of harm is taken as evidence of no harm.
- We assume that manufacturers must list all ingredients in a product, so if we have an allergy or reaction to certain chemicals we can check to see if the product is free of those chemicals. It does not:
- TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in some products secret. Nearly 20% of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are considered “trade secrets”. This makes it impossible for consumers to find out what’s actually in a product. And there is no time limit on the period in which a chemical can be considered a trade secret.
These limitations all help to perpetuate the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward safer chemical and product design. It’s one of the reasons the USA is one of the few nations in the world in which asbestos is not banned in many products.
In 2013, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) was introduced, however it does not deliver the critical fixes needed to fix the TSCA, although it is an improvement to the TSCA. The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests some steps that we must take to reform the TSCA, and these apply to the CSIA also:
- Require new and existing chemicals be assessed for safety – with mandatory and enforceable deadlines. “Innocent until proven guilty” should not apply to chemicals.
- Establish safety standards, especially with regard to children and other vulnerable groups.
- Give the EPA the authority to protect the public from unsafe chemicals, including expedited action for those deemed the most toxic.
- “Grandfathering in” spells trouble for the future.
- Ensure the public’s right to know about the safety and use of chemicals.
- Allow states to maintain laws which exceed federal protections to safeguard their citizens.
 Sorensen, Eric, “Toxicants cause ovarian disease across generations”, Washington State University, http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=31607
- SEE: http://www.sciguru.com/newsitem/13025/Epigenetic-changes-are-heritable-although-they-do-not-affect-DNA-structure
- ALSO SEE: http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/agrawal/documents/HoleskiJanderAgrawal2012TREE.pdf
- ALSO SEE: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32637/title/Lamarck-and-the-Missing-Lnc/