Scourge of toxic chemicals in the environment

When Joyce Egginton's "The Poisoning of Michigan" was published in 1980, it opened eyes to the massive chemical contamination of Michigan's dairy cattle and food supply. The chemical culprit was polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, a highly toxic fire retardant that persists in the soil and bodies of animals and humans. PBBs were eventually banned. But by the time the contaminaion was discovered, nearly nine million people had been ingesting toxic milk and meat for almost a year.

Michigan State University Press highlights the abiding concern over the presence of toxic chemicals in the environment with the reissue of Egginton's account. The book, re-published in paperback in August, contains an afterword by Devra Lee Davis, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and author of the forthcoming "Sell Phone: What's Really on the Line," Maryann Donovan, associate director for research services at University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Arelene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Here Davis assesses the persistent health concerns over toxic chemicals in our environment.

GUEST BLOGGER: Devra Lee Davis

The full story of the impact on our health and the environment of the toxic flame retardant polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) will be written after those reading this are long gone. Like many toxic industrial materials that persist in the environment, these complex molecules can leave marks on our health that only become evident in the declining years of our lives.

Modern chemicals have revolutionized our lives. We can go faster and farther than ever before relying on lighter and stronger materials. We can repair wounds to our bodies and our buildings, and we have created materials that allow spaceships to probe the galaxy.

But these advances in technology have come with a price. Often, it is not paid by those who benefit directly, but instead by those with the bad luck to be exposed to chemicals critical to these developments in quantities and situations their makers never intended.

The production of PBBs and other toxic flame retardants provides a case study of what can go wrong when a product is widely distributed without proper safeguards. Although laws appear to address this problem, chemicals are still presumed to be innocent until evidence is amassed that they are harmful.

The environmental heyday of the 1970s gave way to a period of stagnation that has left us with an appalling record. In the past two decades, efforts to set standards for workplace or environmental cancer-causing agents have ground to a halt. The protracted legal system has effectively tied beleaguered and underfunded regulatory agencies in knots.

What's needed at this point is a fundamentally new approach to environmental protection that creates a new, level playing field. As I urged in my book, "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," it's time to create a Truth and Reconciliation Process on Toxic Hazard.
This system would reward those who come forward with what they know about chronic health risks in their workers and communities by immunizing them from punitive damages in exchange for agreeing to take on health care and monitoring costs for those at risk.

If this sounds idealistic, I plead guilty. But, surely it will be more effective to obtain new information on toxic hazards and end the adversarial system that rewards high-priced lawyering and the use of the science as public relations fig-leaves aimed at perpetuating the status quo.
There are many lessons of the PBB tale, and the need for full public disclosure even at this point, is probably one of the clearest. Recent public health analyses of the Michigan poisoning make clear that flame retardants are associated with a range of poorly recognized but serious public health problems, extending from dramatic increases in cancer to reproductive and developmental impairments in the offspring of those exposed.

A workable public policy to reduce fire deaths is finally taking root. After decades of opposition from the cigarette industry, cigarettes that extinguish themselves within minutes became mandatory in New York State in 2004, and laws have been passed requiring them in most other states. Self-extinguishing cigarettes and safer candles, which are widely available in the United States, greatly reduce the risk of furniture fires -- and the need for chemical treatments.

Yet even while these changes are being instigated, the global fire retardant chemical industry is proposing new flammability standards for computers, TVs, bed coverings, pillows, cell phones and even children's toys that would lead to greatly increased levels of toxic fire retardants in our homes and environment. PBBs, which were some of the early flame retardants, have now been superseded by newer versions of brominated and chlorinated flame-proofing chemicals -- toxic cousins that continue to threaten wildlife and public health.

An alphabet soup of chemical acronyms now populates the land. The brominated fire retardants (BFRs) and chlorinated fire retardants (CFRs) that would in large part be used to meet these proposed flammability requirements cause an array of serious health problems in experimental animals and their progeny, including permanent brain damage, abnormal development of sex organs, and defects in sperm. Many of these chemicals and their combustion byproducts linger throughout the environment, leaving residues that build up in fatty tissues and damage DNA, cause cancer, and act like the hormone estrogen.

A number of persistent, toxic BFRs and CFRs have already been restricted due to efforts championed by Arlene Blum, the founder of California's Green Science Policy Institute. Significantly, as is the case for 90 percent of the chemicals that are widely used in industry and agriculture, most available fire retardant chemicals lack adequate studies of their potential toxicity to human health and the environment.

Research conducted in Finland, Sweden, Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control consistently finds that American and Canadian women have the highest levels of fire retardants in their breast milk in the world and that these levels are uncomfortably close to those proven to cause reproductive and neurological damage to experimental animals. The respected environmental advocates, Environmental Working Group, reports that there is very little of what is called "the margin of safety" -- the difference between levels known to damage animals and those found in people.

As Einstein noted, we cannot solve the problems of the past with the technologies or, we might add, with the laws that allowed them to arise. If we continue to pursue the regulatory soup of processes to address known and suspected workplace and environmental hazards, it will require another two centuries to process just those agents currently known to pose risks.

The revolution in green chemistry that builds chemicals from safer feed stocks offers tremendous promise in ensuring that the Michigan disaster will remain an historic lesson that is not repeated. This should be coupled with a fundamentally new approach to toxic chemicals and other hazards that opens a floodgate of information to full public review -- Truth and Reconciliation of Toxic Hazards should be tried, if only because the emptiness of past approaches remains undebatable at this moment in history.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 9, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Another guest blog/opinion/outlook piece. When was the last post where "book world editors weigh in daily on breaking news, book gossip, history and publishing trends"?

There was an AP article today about publishers' plans for a Kindle kompetitor... no one at book world has an opinion I guess.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 9, 2009 12:04 PM

I hear DiHydrogen Minoxide, also an industrial fire suppressant, has been found in most regional water sources. When will Congress do something about that?

Posted by: gth1 | December 9, 2009 1:16 PM

Very well written. It is good to see more infomation like this everyday. I hope to eventually our leaders will step up to the plate and finally regulate our products. There are so many of us that are already sick from all these chemicals. I have written for over ten years to our leaders trying to get help for the people that are sick from these products. There is no help for us medically, financially, or for emotional support. Thanks again, Linda Delp

Posted by: ldelp84227 | December 9, 2009 1:23 PM

I am sure that a combination of chemicals and EMF, both unregulated, will be found to be the major cause of our ill health in the 21st century.

Brian Stein - ES Sufferer

Posted by: bstein1 | December 11, 2009 5:45 AM

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