Oh That Chemical Feeling

Congress is (finally) looking into the persistent and growing problem of persistent and bioaccumulating pollutants.

Last week a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on toxics and environmental health entitled "Current Science on Public Exposures to Toxic Chemicals." Today a House panel was slated (sub req'd) to look into the problem as well, until Mother Nature intervened, closing down the U.S. government with another record-breaking snowstorm.

The Ongoing Saga of Chemical Safety

It's a sad and frustrating story: an environmental problem that we thought we'd solved more than 30 years ago seems to get worse each year.

The chemical industry has created a cornucopia of new compounds that were supposed to make our lives better and that seemed to be great ideas but, as it turned out all too often ... not so much. (See one example in this post from last week.) Among those chemicals that aren't so great are those that won't go away, that build up in our bodies, and that are toxic to boot.

Congress, aware of this problem decades ago, has enacted laws (see here and here) to deal with it.

In 1972, for example, Congress amended the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to regulate and restrict pesticide use.

Then in 1976 came the more encompassing Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Called "Tosca" for short, the law aimed to:

"ensure that chemicals manufactured, imported, processed, or distributed in commerce, or used or disposed of in the United States do not pose any unreasonable risks to human health or the environment."

Sounds good to me.

Unfortunately, our chemical regulation in general and TSCA in particular have been incredibly ineffective. Roughly 60,000 chemicals were in play in the United States when TSCA was enacted. Now, 30 plus years later, an estimated 20,000 new chemicals have entered the marketplace. EPA has successfully required additional testing on about 200 chemicals and banned or restricted a mere five. Five out of 80,000. (Here's a post on one of the five.)

The Evidence Mounts: BPA and Pesticides

Meanwhile, new reports keep coming along with alarming regularity, highlighting the dangers of these unregulated chemicals. Just last week, two studies caught my eye.

PBA: What's in Your Bottle?

The first, conducted by Terumi Midoro-Horiuti of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and co-authors, found that mice born to mothers exposed to very low doses of bisphenol-a (BPA) were more likely to have an asthmatic response when subjected to a trigger than mice born to mothers not exposed to BPA.

In case you've forgotten, BPA is the stuff used to line canned foods and drinks and is incorporated into many of the plastic bottles we use. These latest findings, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, add to the mountain of harmful health effects that have been linked to BPA: from heart disease to diabetes and developmental problems. (More on BPA in this post and this NYT column.)

On the positive side, there has been some movement on the BPA front. Back in September 2008, the National Institutes of Health's National Toxicology Program concluded that BPA was a chemical of "some concern." Then last month, the Food and Drug Administration, noting the "potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children," announced actions to work with industry and issued consumers advisories to reduce BPA exposure. However, the administration stopped short of regulations.

Even so, we are increasingly able to make our own choice by seeking out jarred goods instead of canned goods and bottles that are labeled BPA-free. One has to wonder, however, what's being used in place of BPA, which brings us to the next story.

Pests of Their Own: Out of the Organophosphates and Into the Pyrethroids

The second study offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when one chemical is replaced for another.

In addition to being listed under TSCA, pesticide use is also regulated by FIFRA. Fifteen years ago or so, the residential insecticide of choice for ants and roaches was organophosphates (OP). But due to health concerns, residential use of many OPs, such as Dursban (chlorpyrifos), has been restricted or was phased out beginning in 2000.

In their place, pyrethroid insecticides have become popular. Unfortunately, the stuff could be an environmental threat in its own right. Researchers Donald Weston of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Lydy of Southern Illinois University report in Environmental Science and Technology that pyrethroid insecticides pass through waste water treatment systems and are present at levels toxic to some aquatic species in two rivers in California. Oops.

Can the Government Protect Us?

Is our toxic substances control system broken? Here's what the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator Lisa Jackson has said about it:

"Right now, we are failing to get this job done. ... Over the years, not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it's supposed to regulate -- it's been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects."

But the times, they may be a-changin'. Congress has announced plans to update TSCA with new legislation, possibly this year. Last September, Jackson outlined a set of principles that Congress should consider to put some teeth into the act (details here). Then in December '09, EPA got the ball rolling, announcing several actions it was initiating to help improve current law regulating chemicals, including the following:

  • Eliminating the practice of allowing companies to claim confidentiality to avoid listing harmful ingredient chemicals that are already included in the TSCA inventory.
  • Will our folks in DC be able to agree on a new bill to slow the growing numbers of toxic chemicals we put into our environment and our bodies? And if so, will they be able to enact it and send it to President Obama to sign before the clock runs out on this session of Congress?

    It's possible. But it may be that there's too much "toxic" stuff in both chambers to get anything done. It could be that we will have to wait for a ban on political toxicity before we can get a meaningful ban on environmental toxicity. Normally, at this point I would say "don't hold your breath," but with all those environmental toxins, that might not be such good advice.

    Originally posted at www.thegreengrok.com.