TOXIC IGNORANCEBy David Roe,
Dr. William Pease, Karen Florini, and Dr. Ellen Silbergeld.
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After DDT, after lead, after PCBs and other unintended chemical
catastrophes, our knowledge about the chemicals we allow in commerce must
have gotten much better. So Congress wrote into law, and so the public has
a right to assume.
Yet for most of the important chemicals in American commerce, the
simplest safety facts still cannot be found. Environmental Defense Fund
research indicates that, today, even the most basic toxicity testing
results cannot be found in the public record for nearly 75% of the
top-volume chemicals in commercial use.
In other words, the public cannot tell whether a large majority of the
highest-use chemicals in the United States pose health hazards or not --
much less how serious the risks might be, or whether those chemicals are
actually under control. These include chemicals that we are likely to
breathe or drink, that build up in our bodies, that are in consumer
products, and that are being released from industrial facilities into our
backyards and streets and forests and streams.
In the early 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research
Council completed a four-year study and found that 78% of the chemicals in
highest-volume commercial use had not had even "minimal" toxicity testing.
Thirteen years later, there has been no significant improvement.
What we don't know may not be hurting us -- or it may. But guinea pig
status is not what Congress promised the public more than twenty years
ago. Instead, it established a national policy that the risks of toxic
chemicals in our environment would be identified and controlled.
Ignorance, pervasive and persistent over the course of twenty years, has
made that promise meaningless.
Chemical safety can't be based on faith. It requires facts. Government
policy and government regulation have been so ineffective in making
progress against the chemical ignorance problem, for so long, that the
chemical manufacturing industry itself must now take direct responsibility
for solving it. It is high time for the facts to be delivered.
Step one toward a solution lies in simple screening tests, which
manufacturers of chemicals can easily do. All chemicals in high-volume use
in the United States should long since have been subjected to at least
preliminary health-effects screening, with the results publicly available
for verification. There is already international consensus on just what
needs to be done as a first step. A model definition of what should be
included in preliminary screening tests for high-volume chemicals was
developed and agreed on in 1990 by the U.S. and the other member nations
of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with
extensive participation from the U.S. chemical manufacturing industry. All
that is missing is the industry's commitment to act, without waiting any