The term “chemical safety” is an oxymoron of epic proportions, especially when it comes to the use in consumer products. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a classic example.
- Toxic chemicals are allowed on the market without any evidence of safety
- Chemical bans are ineffective because the banned chemicals are inevitably replaced with new, sometimes more toxic, chemicals
- It is virtually impossible to accurately study a chemical’s potential for harm, because there are often gross errors and omissions in estimating what really happens when the chemicals are applied in the real world
Exposure to this chemical — used widely in plastic products, canned goods and more — in utero has been linked to altered brain function and organ development. In adults, exposure may lead to cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and sperm damage.
Only after many years, and a plethora of published research showing its toxic effects, did some manufacturers begin to remove BPA from their products. Some governments also took action, such as that of France, which banned its use in food packaging, and the European Union, which banned it from baby bottles.
You can now find many plastic products available in BPA-free form, which seems like a victory for safety. That is, until you understand that this is nothing more than a bait-and-switch. Most BPA-free plastics contain another chemical, bisphenol S (BPS), in BPA’s place.
As its name implies, it’s very similar to BPA and, by some measures, may be even more toxic. There’s not enough research on BPS to know the extent of its risks, and companies are banking on it taking years before people get wind of BPS’ toxicity.
In the meantime, they’re laughing all the way to the bank with their profits from premium-priced BPA-free goods.
Why Chemical Bans Are Ineffective
Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, revealed many of the chemical-safety failures plaguing the U.S.1Among them are the often-misunderstood realities surrounding chemical bans.
From 1945 to 2007, U.S. chemical production increased 15-fold. Over the years, once “standard” chemicals have been pulled from the market after health concerns were revealed. Some of the chemicals were even banned from the market.
Why does this ultimately do no good? Because the banned chemicals were, of course, quickly replaced with other chemicals that were supposedly safer, but which too often turn out to be toxic. Latham reported:
“The substitution of one synthetic chemical for another, wherein the substitute later turns out to be hazardous, is not a new story.
Indeed, a great many of the chemicals that environmental campaigners nowadays oppose (such as Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide Roundup) are still considered by many in their industries to be ‘newer’ and ‘safer’ substitutes for chemicals (such as 2,4,5-T) that are no longer widely used.
Thus, when the EU banned the herbicide atrazine, Syngenta replaced it with terbuthylazine. Terbuthylazine is chemically very similar and … appears to have similar ecological and health effects.
The chemical diacetyl was forced off the market for causing ‘popcorn lung.’ However, it has been largely replaced by dimers and trimers of the same chemical. Unfortunately, the safety of these multimers is highly dubious since it is believed that, in use, they break down into diacetyl.”
Rarely Discussed Limits to Chemical-Safety Testing
Very few chemicals on the market are tested for safety, but even those that are, are not necessarily safe. Standard toxicology tests involve administering chemicals for up to 90 days (typically to rats or mice fed a standardized diet).
The results are then used to form “estimates of harm” for other doses, age groups, species and environments. The problem is that many times there are gross errors in estimating what really happens when the chemicals are applied in the real world.
For starters, commercial chemicals are often impure and may be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Further, real-world exposures are complex and vary depending on too many factors to control.
Then there is the issue of chemical cocktails — the simultaneous exposure to numerous environmental chemicals to which most people and animals are currently exposed.
Many commercial products, such as pesticides, also contain ingredients intended to amplify the products’ potency, or other so-called “inert” ingredients that cause their own toxic effects. Studies, however, only evaluate one active ingredient in isolation.
As a result, most research simply cannot predict the outcome of these real-world scenarios (or, should we say, ongoing experiments?). Latham explained:
“Returning to the specific case of BPA, no one appreciated until 2013 that the main route of exposure to BPA in mammals is absorption through the mouth and not the gut.
The mouth is an exposure route whose veinous blood supply bypasses the liver, and this allows BPA to circulate unmetabolised in the bloodstream …
Before this was known, many toxicologists explicitly denied the plausibility of measurements showing high BPA concentrations in human blood. They had assumed that BPA was absorbed via the gut and rapidly degraded in the liver.”
Sometimes Smaller Doses Are More Toxic
Another issue is that many studies assume a linear dose-response relationship for the chemical and any given effect. That is, they assume that if a chemical causes organ damage at 200 parts per million (ppm), it will cause greater damage at higher exposures and less damage at lower levels.
This is a dangerous assumption, because for many toxins, including some endocrine-disrupting chemicals, harm is exerted even at very small doses. Patricia Hunt, Ph.D., a geneticist at Washington State University, explained that endocrine disrupters like BPA, which act like hormones, “don’t play by the rules.”
Even low-level exposure — levels to which people are currently being exposed — may be enough to damage developing eggs and sperm, for instance.
In one of Hunt’s studies, researchers found disruptions to egg development after rhesus monkeys, which have human-like reproductive systems, were exposed to either single, daily doses of BPA or low-level continuous doses.2
Chemical Companies Are Running the Safety Show
To say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not an effective regulator is putting it mildly.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which took effect in 1976, allows high-production volume chemicals to be launched without their chemical identity or toxicity information being disclosed.
It also makes it very difficult for the EPA to take regulatory action against dangerous chemicals. Also incredulous, the EPA allows chemical companies to conduct their own experiments and provide the data for chemical risk assessments.
Even after companies were found to be deliberately misleading the FDA about their study results, the EPA chose to turn a blind eye to the systemic corruption. Latham reported:
“In the 1980s, Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT) was the largest independent commercial testing laboratory in the United States.
FDA scientist Dr. Adrian Gross discovered that IBT (and other testing companies) were deliberately, consistently, and illegally misleading both EPA and the FDA about their results.
Aided by practices such as the hiring of a chemist from Monsanto, who manufactured them, to test PCBs, IBT created an illusion of chemical safety for numerous pesticides and other chemicals. Many are still in use. They include Roundup, atrazine and 2,4-D …
… More remarkable even than the scandal was EPA’s response. Instead of bringing testing in-house, which would seem the logical response to a system-wide failure of independent commercial testing, EPA instead created a Byzantine system of external reporting and corporate summarizing.
The resulting bureaucratic maze ensures that no EPA employee ever sets eyes on the original experiments or the primary data, and only a handful can access even the summarized results.”
Are the Problems Unfixable?
It’s clear that chemical-risk assessments do little to protect public health from dangerous chemicals, but can the problems be fixed? Latham believes the issues are “not just broken but unfixable.” Consider the complexities of testing multiple chemical cocktails.
Experts agree that in order to gauge the true risk of a chemical, it should be tested in combination with others to more closely replicate real-world exposures. Yet, U.S. National Toxicology Program data suggests testing the interactions between 25 chemicals for 13 weeks would require 33 million experiments and cost $3 trillion.3
Even if it were possible to accurately test chemicals by competent, unbiased institutions using experiments that mimic real-world exposures (which it isn’t), Latham raises a good point — would any chemical be deemed “safe”? He noted, “What is so unbelievable, after all, about proposing that all man-made chemicals cause dysfunction at low doses in a significant subset of all the biological organisms on earth?”
Congress Caves in to Chemical Companies in Toxic Substances Control Act Overhaul
An overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act is desperately needed, but an agreement recently reached doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans. On the bright side, the new agreement would give the EPA authority to require companies to provide safety data for untested chemicals and also prevent chemicals from coming to market if they haven’t been tested for safety.
As the Act currently stands, the EPA can only demand safety data if they can prove the chemical poses a risk. In the last 40 years, the EPA has required testing for just 200 (out of thousands) chemicals and taken steps to regulate just five.
One glaring problem is that the testing will still come from the industry itself. Another issue is that Congress caved in to industry and allowed a single regulatory system to oversee the industry, and also allowed companies the right to seek a federal waiver from the rules for certain chemicals.
Under the new agreement, states may lose their power to regulate chemicals they deem toxic. In return, language was inserted to allow states to restrict a chemical’s use only if the federal risk review takes more than 3.5 years. As The Washington Post reported:4
“The Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber, the organization’s vice president for government affairs, said the EWG walked away from the bill because it represents ‘only a slight improvement’ on ‘the worst environmental law in the books.’”
Your Body Is Not a Toxin Dumping Ground
It’s virtually impossible to avoid all of the toxic chemicals in your environment, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit silently by while corporations use your home, your water, your air and your body as a convenient toxin dumping ground. Until change occurs on a global scale, you can significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.
- Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh, and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals, both in the food itself and the packaging. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it’s not organically grown.
- Choose pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and at little risk of contamination, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines.
- Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even “BPA-free” plastics typically leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
- Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Use glass baby bottles.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin readily absorbs contaminants. Most tap water toxins, including fluoride, can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
- Look for products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and others.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.
- When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses or carpet padding, consider buying chemical-free varieties containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk and Kevlar.
- Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
- Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.
- Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
- Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. EWG’s Skin Deep database can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.5
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or use glass doors.
- Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
- Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.