2010: The year of living 'safely'?
Environmental toxins have stealthily become ubiquitous, and we encounter them daily. Evidence of our exposure and questions about the public health risks continue to mount.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 - 19:04
BOTTLE-GATE: BPA-free bottles reflect public concerns about 'harmless' chemicals. (Photo: thesoftlanding/Flickr)
2010 could be dubbed "The Year of Living Safely." A surge of legislative activity occurred this year around regulation of chemicals, many of them in intense use across a range of industries and contained in a plethora of products we use daily. This continual contact with what were believed to be benign substances has led to some questioning of what is considered "safe."
So far, 2010 has seen proposal of the Safe Cosmetics Act, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act and, here in California, Sen. Fran Pavley's recently defeated Toxic-Free Babies & Toddlers Act (SB 797). Also, two widely used chemicals, bisphenol A (BPA) and triclosan, are undergoing further examination by the EPA to reassess their safety.
Chemical regulation: The early years
In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, essentially creating an inventory of existing chemicals in use and regulating manufacturers' use of "new" chemicals not on the list. At the time of TSCA's passage, most chemicals in use were simply grandfathered into the EPA inventory of chemicals, without a fresh review of their potential hazards. Throughout the ensuing years, subchapters have been added to the TSCA as public health concerns showed up in response to certain substances (think asbestos exposure and lead contamination).
What we have discovered, however, is that some chemicals that were evaluated and deemed harmless have been put to such widespread use, and are used so often, that through bioaccumulation, small concentrations compound to levels that present problems for both public and environmental health.
Triclosan and the antibacterial bonanza
One example is triclosan. I remember well the antibacterial craze, when cleaning product and personal care manufacturers convinced the public that we could scarcely shake a hand or touch a surface without then sanitizing against threatening bacteria. And suddenly it wasn't enough to simply wash your hands — to be truly clean was to wash with a soap containing triclosan, originally developed as a surgical scrub for medical professionals. (And for good measure, follow that up with periodic squirts of hand sanitizer. And don't forget to keep a supply of disinfectant wipes on hand, just in case ...). The irony is that these chemical concoctions were designed to create a non-toxic, "safe" environment. But at what cost?
Years after the antibacterial boom, CDC (Centers for Disease Control) testing revealed that triclosan was found in 75 percent of participants in its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Over the past few decades, as government agencies have attempted to develop safety guidelines to possibly rein in the use of triclosan, that use has grown. Commenting on the FDA's 2010 decision to perform a safety review of the substance, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), an opponent of its widespread use, stated, "The proliferation of triclosan in everyday consumer products is so enormous, it is literally in almost every type of product — most soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics, clothes and toys. It's in our drinking water, it's in our rivers and as a result, it's in our bodies."
Babies and BPA
When Canada declared BPA a toxic substance in October, the action increased pressure on U.S. regulators. For some time, nonprofit organizations like the Environmental Working Group have pushed for deeper investigation of BPA, countered by chemical proponents like the American Chemistry Council which lobbied hard to hold off government inquiry. And though the California state legislature rejected SB 797 in September, other U.S. cities and states have enacted BPA bans, also focused on baby bottles.
Since the fracas over BPA erupted, we've come to find out the substance is in everything from plastic containers, to canned food liners, to retailers' thermal paper receipts. Not only that, it slowly leaches into whatever it contains and skin absorbs it easily. Definitely something that merits looking into ...
The EPA's 2010 BPA Action Plan presents a multi-pronged approach. The agency will consider adding BPA to the TSCA list of substances of concern, and could order further testing to determine whether BPA poses an environmental hazard. As public concern grows, more manufacturers are creating BPA-free alternatives, which the EPA plans to support through its Design for the Environment program.
And California isn't down for the count in the BPA battle. The next move may be to propose adding BPA to the state's list of carcinogenic chemicals compiled and published annually under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.
So as this year draws to a close, the quest for safety continues at local, state and federal levels, with a big push from Democrats. It remains to be seen, though, how proposed chemical regulation will fare in these politically divided and economically challenging times.
You might also like: