Toxic Shock: An Overview

I pride myself on being an educated writer, a good mom, healthy. My father was an analytical chemist who was inspired to get into plastics partly because of a line in “The Graduate.” My mother was a nurse practitioner who helped veterans live longer at home. Yet it was only recently that I learned, from a panelist at one of my “Sustainable We” forums, that only a small percentage of the chemicals in our everyday life are tested by an independent body for their toxicity impact. [Follow that thread here]

I’m not an activist or an advocate by nature. I’m a left-brained person, with passions toward equity and fairness, who likes to make informed decisions based largely on what science and factual evidence indicates is true. That includes attempting to look through the tendency to want simplified black-or-white solutions.

I believe we ultimately live in a planet of many colors and it’s sometimes hard to accept the “gray” blend that is a result. I also believe that how we choose to react to that gray is a matter of personal choice.

As a former Time Inc. editor/writer and New York Times editorial project leader, I have started paying attention to the story of toxins in our everyday lives. This is the start of that investigation.

An Overwhelming List of Chemicals

From a practical standpoint, there is no way the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can verify the authenticity of data provided by manufacturers about the safety of the chemical soups that fill our product buffet.

There are at least 60,000 chemicals in use today. About 700 are added every year. That is 4 billion tons of toxic chemicals. In the U.S., it is presumed that the data supplied by the manufacturer is thorough and adequate, unless it is proven otherwise. The EPA has required testing on only about 200 of those chemicals since the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was signed into law in 1976.

The TSCA is overdue for an overhaul. Yet even that effort might not satisfy consumer concerns. There is an element of self-regulation in industry that a new TSCA will not alleviate. Many believe the new TSCA — assuming Congress gets around to passing it in 2016 — will correct important lapses. But unless data collection from unbiased, self-funded testing labs, and enforcement and restrictive penalties, becomes stronger in the U.S., I suspect no legislation will make conscious consumers feel safer. There are simply too many gaps in knowledge, given the sheer number of chemicals introduced into the bloodstream of society every year. And there have been too many glaring examples of irresponsibility to maintain blind faith in “the system.”

Varying Company Ethics

Most companies are not in the business of creating products that are harmful to its employees, the air, the water, the soil, the consumer. But there have been many companies – from giant corporations to small businesses — who have abused that trust.

  • In the worst cases, companies have squelched information about harm to environment, including death to humans and animals. Sometimes they have even pointed the fault at others while knowing their own culpability. [Story coming]
  • Other companies have disposed of toxic sludge into water, air and soil, hoping the dilution would render the level of pollution acceptable. [Story coming]
  • Or have sent the toxins to a lower-income community that might have less attention paid to it. [Story coming]
  • In many cases, companies simply don’t know the combination of factors that can lead to dangerous levels of toxins over the long term. Air pollution can have multiple source points, for example — who is to say what might, ultimately, be responsible for the development of a cancer?
  • Some companies learn of an issue and eventually work to make safer options, with or without whistle-blowers to force their hands.
Example: 3M and Scotchgard

Once the chemicals are in the body, 3M’s medical director Dr. Larry Zobel says they hitch a ride with protein in the bloodstream, and circulate through the body. “They’re very unlike other materials that get in the body and stay a long time, which might go to fat or to bone. These materials don’t. They’re actively moving around the body,” explains Zobel. “They bind to protein in the blood. The liver removes them and actually excretes them in the bile. So they get into the intestine, and as they’re moved down the intestine they are re-absorbed again. So they come back through the circulation back to the liver, they re-attach to protein and they circulate some more.”

How Do We React to Uncertainty?

Responses to the “we don’t really know the impact of products on our long-term health” reality range from:

  1. assuming the best until proven otherwise (which is officially the U.S. regulatory position), to
  2. assuming the worst until proven otherwise (which is the European model).

Many people have significant reasons to pay more attention to that impact – those with chemical sensitivities, health issues including asthma and heart disease, women who are intending to get pregnant or are raising a child, men and women who care about reproductive fertility, anyone who cares for the elderly.

Readers of this package of information will fall anywhere on the spectrum – from resignation that sometimes the cost to health is the price we pay for products and food that can sometimes extend the comfort of our lives to “we need to make our air, food, water safe for everyone.” My goal is not to persuade anyone to make certain choices. There are two things I will focus on.

1. Major mistakes have been made. I’ll cover some of them for those who aren’t aware and want to learn more.

Even if the vast majority of companies have done proper, reliable scientific testing, there have been seriously unethical management decisions, and we don’t learn about them until it’s too late. Whether it is an unelected city official in Flint, Michigan, who has a mandate to save money in a low-income community… or a giant corporation that hides its toxic output so as to continue profiting from products it has convinced us are necessary … deaths and serious diseases and environmental degradation occur because of what we create and consume. This will be a portal to some of those stories. I’ll lay out some cause-and-effects for an assortment of products.

2. The marketplace seems to be our strongest ally for making a difference, often more quickly and effectively than policy.

I’ll detail some of the companies that have actively found safer alternatives. I believe that supporting those who are proactively looking for safer alternatives is one of the easiest and most effective things we can do as a community.

Ultimately, I believe we can raise our fists at companies that do wrong – and we owe a lot to the activists and advocates who make the time to do so on our behalf – but until we make widespread shifts in our own purchasing behaviors, there is no financial impetus for large companies to change its profit stream. Even Dupont, which paid a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA for its deceptive practices with cancer-causing chemicals, barely felt a sting. The fee represented less than 2% of its profits that year.

There have been great examples of quickly changing manufacturing processes because of market demand, prior to any regulations.

Changes to manufacturing processes and ingredients also would transform more easily if there were thousands of chemical toxicology specialists in Research & Development labs at corporations working to create safer solutions. Yet look at the graduates of our universities – even the green chemistry programs – and you would be surprised at how few of them are taught in-depth courses about toxicology. [See this article about the insights of John Warner, of Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign.]

This package of information will continue to grow as I learn more. Ultimately, it is designed to create smarter consumers.

Please join the mailing list if you want to be kept apprised.

— Mikki Morrissette