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How to poison the world (and get away with it)

September 3, 2023

The most important variable for poisoning the world and getting away with it is a regulatory structure that does not require the maker of a synthetic chemical to test it for safety prior to sale and release and puts the burden of proof for establishing hazards on the government and the public.

That pretty much describes the regulatory structure in the United States—with the exception of drugs, food additives and pesticides—until 2016 when the Toxic Substances Control Act was updated. In Europe a similar state of affairs prevailed until the advent of REACH (for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in 2007.

To understand what happens to public health when this is the case, EcoWatch provides an excellent long-form piece on the history of Teflon and its toxic legacy to this day. Spoiler alert: The makers of Teflon knew almost from the beginning about the toxicity of the processes and chemicals used in making it and even today are creating new versions of similar chemicals (after the old ones were discontinued due to liability) and putting them into the environment all over again. The manufacturers made and sold these products for decades, enjoyed huge profits and only now are having to answer for it. The people who owned and led those manufacturers during their heyday and therefore benefited the most financially are long gone. They essentially poisoned the world and got away with it.

In both the United States and Europe the first serious attempts to regulate the environmental and health hazards of synthetic chemicals resulted in the grandfathering of thousands of chemicals. With the passage of the toothless Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 in the United States, 62,000 existing chemicals were grandfathered, meaning they continued to be produced and it was up to the government to review them and determine their hazards, if any. Only new chemicals needed to undergo any prior review before sale and release. And then, as it turned out, the government had the burden of showing that a new chemical was dangerous enough just to begin a review for which it then had to force information from chemical companies through lengthy and costly rulemaking processes (which are often then challenged in court leading to further delays). The result has been that through 2016 the United States banned just nine chemicals under TSCA:

  1. Polychlorinated Biphenyls – Used in electrical transformers.
  2. Fully Halogenated Chlorofluoroalkanes (chlorofluorocarbons) – Used as refrigerants and pressurizing agents in spray cans. Famous for destroying the ozone layer.
  3. Dioxin – A component of Agent Orange, a defoliant and known carcinogen famous for destroying the health of soldiers and civilians in Vietnam.
  4. Asbestos – If you haven’t heard about the dangers of asbestos, you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last few decades. It was most often used for fireproofing in construction materials. The ban was partially reversed by the industry in court and asbestos is still found in some consumer products.
  5. Hexavalent Chromium – This is the stuff that poisoned all those unlucky Californians portrayed in the film Erin Brockovich. This chemical was great for making hard metal coatings.
  6. Components of metalworking fluids which mitigate friction and heat.

That’s it in 40 years of regulatory work.

Since the passage of updates to TSCA in 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been busy trying to prioritize and test some of the 140,000 human-made chemicals that now pervade our environment, a very big task. With new, expanded powers the EPA is moving much faster than before severely restricting uses of methylene chloride, seeking to tighten rules on asbestos, starting to find and restrict so-called PBT chemicals (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic), and establishing authority to review and restrict PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), the so-called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment.

These are the chemicals released during the manufacture of Teflon, just one of a myriad of uses across the economy. It is almost a certainty that everyone reading this sentence has some version of PFAS in their bodies. To get a sense of how pervasive human exposure is, check out Time Magazine’s recent piece entitled “All The Stuff in Your Home That Might Contain PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals.'” Keep in mind that this is just one class of chemicals.

Even with EPA’s expanded powers, the work of reviewing the chemicals in the marketplace is going very slowly as the chemical companies introduce 2,000 new chemicals each year. The EPA is committed to review 20 high-priority chemicals at a time with a seven-year deadline.

The message to the chemical industry seems to be the same as it was before new regulations and rules came into force in the last 15 years or so in the United States and Europe. You can still poison the world and get away with it. You just have to run a little faster than the regulators. And, that’s a pretty low bar!

Photo: Shelves of small bottles labelled as toxic, harmful and irritant (2009). By CGP Grey via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I_Heart_Small_Bottles_of_Chemicals_4890752060.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: toxic chemicals