Saturday, November 30, 2013

1. Treat Every New Chemical Brought to Market as Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Pouring chemical -
Every year, thousands of new chemicals are introduced into the environment. That is, to the air, water, and soil—to the food we eat, to the fabric we wear and rub against, and the products we use without a second thought. If you heard even a few horror stories about some of these chemicals, you’d wonder if anyone gave them more than a second thought before releasing them into the world, to affect human and nonhuman beings, maybe even helping to change weather patterns.
The overriding philosophy in the chemical industry—the people and corporations that brought us everything from plastics to oven cleaner to Agent Orange—is “Innocent until proven guilty.” That is a wonderful way of dealing with a human suspect, but extremely dangerous, not to mention unethical, when applied to chemical compounds. Most aren't even considered “suspect” in the first place.
Yes, there are tests for certain materials meant for direct contact with human beings and, occasionally, their food or companion animals. These tests are conducted at high dosages on lab animals that may or may not closely resemble human physiology. They are often cruel, and that cruelty is in vain if the tests do not accurately reflect their later impact on human health and environmental integrity. Inadequately tested, they go into cosmetics, food, toys, fabric, and other household materials, and used as medicines, disinfectants, pesticides, preservatives, weapons, and so on. Anyone or anything that comes in contact is, in effect, part of an ongoing experiment.
Some of the numerous, egregious effects include birth defects, endocrine disruption (putting human and nonhuman animal hormones out of whack), oncogenesis (initiation of cancerous growths), cognitive impairment (temporary fogginess or actual I.Q. reduction), and behavioral problems.
These chemicals are part of our daily lives. Only when sufficient and irrefutable evidence mounts up about a chemical’s dangers does anyone do anything about it. And sometimes, not even then.
The chemical industry has given us many truly amazing innovations, no doubt about it. I’m not calling for the whole edifice to come tumbling down, only for a few renovations to its uncontested principles—ones that affect us all. 
As long as we maintain this approach in order to protect big business interests, people and the natural environment will continue to suffer.
Tell me: what chemicals do you wish had been more carefully tested or monitored before being released? Do you have any experience with something that caused an allergic reaction - or worse? 


  1. (Keep me far from the tile-drained fields
    and the atrazine ammonia
    Where the Corn is high, but the dust is dry
    and an extra leg’s an option).

  2. It seems you're essentially proffering the Precautionary Principle. Personally I think that falls short of the optimum target, and it sidesteps some large opportunities for advancement, that is better technology AND safer humans.

    The problems are not simple and not getting simpler. The exaggeration of fear and doubt is a grave concern. Our most educated and trustworthy minds must be put on the task of guessing risk. (If it weren't guessing it wouldn't be called risk -- uncertainty must be processed wisely and it shouldn't inherently imply inaction.) The majority of those 50 million chemicals will have risks so low as to merit no precautions at all. To confuse them with the truly dangerous innovations is itself dangerous: too much alarm results in a cry-wolf backlash into greater vulnerability. So I suspect the precautionary principle is overdoing it. We need to get better instead at measuring risks.

    I suspect there's a huge opportunity for reform today: the current combination of patents and regulation reward secrecy. Something better is needed and I'm not sure what it is but it's probably some radical, risky, and expensive overhaul. It should be no surprise that corporations are greedy when what decides whether they exist or not is whether one number on their balance sheet is greater than one other number. It should be no surprise that chemical corporations are secretive and cowardly when the rewards for their research and investments are held hostage for a very long time to patents, regulations, and adjudications. But secrecy and centralized regulation is getting more dangerous every day because the innovations are getting more complicated. How do we fix or replace that without making things worse? Somebody's going to find a better way someday. It will probably involve innovations being disseminated early and wide so dangers and risks can be efficiently known. The system today punishes innovators who do the right thing, because that kind of dissemination flushes away the bulk of their incentives. That retards innovation, hides dangers, and costs all of us too much in the process. Until that's addressed expect the dilemma to deepen: slower and more expensive progress PLUS stewing in an ever more dangerous soup.

    1. The Precautionary Principle looks like a good idea to people who are most likely to suffer from the overconfident release of novel substances into the marketplace and, eventually, our bodies and environments. To those who stand to benefit from a free market, and to an open and relatively unsuspicious society that welcomes new things and bases its main paradigm on growth, the Principle might look like stonewalling. To be sure, red tape can strangle many wonderful ideas before they see the light of day. Bureaucracy is another kind of lethal reductionism, and must be minimized. Balance is key. What I suggest, in my (unpolished) post, is that the present imbalance favors industry and business. Making money, not the pursuit of scientific knowledge, not innovation or creativity per se, let alone the preservation of human and ecological health, is the main criterion for so many decisions in this realm and others.
      Risk is a contentious issue as well. But best put into the public sphere so many minds from a variety of disciplines can have their say.

  3. Measuring risk is only possible if our tools of measurement can be calibrated to last centuries. How were genetically modified crops tested (and by whom?) and for how long? Measuring risk alone should not be the criterion for assessing whether something is safe. The symptoms of some diseases can take decades to manifest. Our current strategy is to use chemicals to counter the effects of other chemicals. David Ehrenfeld wrote The Arrogance of Humanism which amongst other things, deals with this very idea.

    1. These are all very good points. I'm particularly impressed to hear you cite Ehrenfeld, a great hero of mine. (I met him about 18 years ago, and he signed my paperback copy of that great book!) I remember well his discussion of technical fixes. They are everywhere.
      I agree, many diseases - cancer being the most obvious - emerge so long after the fact that it is often impossible to draw a clear line of cause and effect. But surely we have learned some lessons after all this time.
      It is a very complex topic. What is frustrating is that those with the strongest interests seem to be silencing anyone who gets in their way - no matter how much suffering is involved.
      We need dialogue: not suppression of innovation and certainly not suppression of questioning.