Editorial: An urgent need for better data on chemicals
The slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry,” attributed to the DuPont chemical company, has promised exactly that for more than two generations. In many respects, it’s proven true in industry, medicine and nearly every other aspect of life. But chemicals, or even elements themselves, rarely do only what their users want them to do. Many have side effects. Sometimes those side effects don’t cause recognizable symptoms for years or decades.
Often, the negative effects of a presumably harmless substance aren’t recognized until great harm is done. Scholars still debate the extent to which lead poisoning from the use of the metal in drinking and cooking vessels and water pipes, contributed to the collapse of the ancient Roman empire.
The effects of lead, particularly on the developing brains of infants, have been publicized, as have the dangers of mercury, another toxic metal that retards brain development. Pregnant women have also been warned about the damage smoking and drinking can do to a baby in utero, but many other chemicals are also known to cause long-term harm.
Government agencies, like the state Bureau of Child and Maternal Health, warn of the dangers of lead and the mercury in fish. But no clearinghouse exists to inform the public about the other substances known or suspected to affect human development. Such a clearinghouse, one unbiased and based on the best possible science, is desperately needed. The unwitting exposure of unborn and young children to harmful chemicals could, to paraphrase the Army slogan, doom them to be less than they might have been.
There are now tens of thousands of chemicals in use, some in quantities measured in tons. Several thousand new chemicals are submitted to the EPA each year. Many chemicals already in use have never been tested for toxicity to humans. Little is known about their affect on human development, including their impact, alone or in concert with other chemicals, on the brains of fetuses and young children.
Linda Greer, a National Resources Defense Council scientist with a Ph.D in environmental toxicology, said in the latest issue of the NRDC magazine OnEarth that even she doesn’t “feel I know enough to protect myself and my family through screening what we buy.”
Greer was quoted in an article titled “Toxic Generation.” It discusses the discovery that the placenta, the organ through which nutrients pass to nourish the developing fetus, is not the barrier to harmful substances it was long thought to be. Chemicals, including those found in some plastics, including those used to make water bottles and line cans containing food, make it through. So do chemicals in some pesticides, flame retardants and vehicle exhaust.
Children walking through the exhaust of idling school buses, and their waiting parents, are exposed to them. So, according to some scientists, are people who handle the thermally printed receipts issued by gas pumps and other devices, people who heat food in plastic containers or drink water from bottles left in the sun, eat canned food, or use some cosmetics.
Some of the chemicals are endocrine disrupters that affect hormones that guide fetal development. Their impact, some studies have found, include diminished IQ, behavior and learning problems, and an increased risk of disease later in life. A pediatrician now at the New York University School of Medicine estimates that mercury exposure alone results in a loss of up to 3.2 IQ points in several hundred thousand American newborns every year: The result, a lifetime loss of economic productivity valued at $8.7 billion.
What’s needed, Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior public health scientist quoted in the article, is a new regulatory system for testing chemicals, including the enormous backlog already in use. We agree. As a nation, we will be less than we would otherwise be if we are unwittingly poisoning our children.