Anyone who’s bothered reading the small-print warnings on a can of paint will have come across lines like these:
“Contains solvents which can cause permanent brain and nervous system damage… This product contains chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
You have been warned and thus — hopefully — take appropriate caution when handling such products.
But these kinds of warnings have an insidious effect. They create the impression that if no such warning is provided then there must be no dangerous chemicals in the product or its packaging. Wrong!
For instance, if canned goods were marked appropriately, virtually every canned food you find in the supermarket would carry a warning like this: this product contains chemicals which may increase your risk of cancer, cause birth defects or other reproductive problems, cause brain damage and disrupt the endocrine system.
The cause of the risk is bisphenol A, known as BPA, which is used as a can lining. Alert consumers are on the lookout for labeling that says “BPA-free”, but since many people don’t know what BPA is, they likewise have little reason to steer clear of every can that lacks such a declaration.
Back in 2010, Canada became the first country to identify BPA as a toxin, but two years later walked back on that position by declaring that the chemical’s use in food packaging does not pose a health risk.
Thus, predictably, runs the standard defense strategy through which industry repeatedly responds to what it perceives as commercial threats. First comes the denial — our product is harmless. Then, after research makes the danger undeniable, comes minimization — yes it’s dangerous, but not at these levels of exposure. Only after decades of harm and copious epidemiological evidence comes the mea culpa, with a small fraction of earlier profits used to cover the cost of legal settlements.
In the U.S. the FDA colluded in a PR charade by last year banning the use of BPA in baby bottles. It did so at the request of industry which had long ceased using BPA in such products. Manufacturers clearly felt that the FDA ban would serve their own marketing interests.
The New York Times reports: Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, industrial chemicals do not have to be tested before they are put on the market. Under the law regulating chemicals, producers are only rarely required to provide the federal government with the information necessary to assess safety.
Regulators, doctors, environmentalists and the chemical industry agree that the country’s main chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, needs fixing. It is the only major environmental statute whose core provisions have not been reauthorized or substantively updated since its adoption in the 1970s. They do not agree, however, on who should have to prove that a chemical is safe.
Currently this burden rests almost entirely on the federal government. Companies have to alert the Environmental Protection Agency before manufacturing or importing new chemicals. But then it is the E.P.A.’s job to review academic or industry data, or use computer modeling, to determine whether a new chemical poses risks. Companies are not required to provide any safety data when they notify the agency about a new chemical, and they rarely do it voluntarily, although the E.P.A. can later request data if it can show there is a potential risk. If the E.P.A. does not take steps to block the new chemical within 90 days or suspend review until a company provides any requested data, the chemical is by default given a green light.
The law puts federal authorities in a bind. “It’s the worst kind of Catch-22,” said Dr. Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Under this law, the E.P.A. can’t even require testing to determine whether a risk exists without first showing a risk is likely.”
As a result, the overwhelming majority of chemicals in use today have never been independently tested for safety. [Continue reading…]