Protecting our society from toxic chemicals: Why is common sense so uncommon?

michaels_david.jpgAnyone who has ever sewn a curtain or a Christmas stocking knows this simple rule: “Don’t cut too close to the margin.” Otherwise, a small mistake, a tiny miscalculation, and the entire task is in danger.

Somehow, this common sense approach is often missed in the governmental deliberations that shortchange public health while safeguarding the cash flow for the chemical industry. The obstinate position that FDA has maintained on bisphenol A is a telling illustration. Rather than setting aside an ample margin of safety, ensuring that our children are adequately protected from endocrine disrupting substances, the FDA has persisted with its insensate logic whereby nearly every chemical is considered safe. Already, the parents have spoken – they don’t want BPA in their kids’ products. The National Toxicology Panel confirmed its concern about likely life-long health effects of BPA. The vast and constantly growing body of independent, reliable scientific research points to the health risks of BPA – yet the chemical industry and the FDA play the “all safe” tune over and over again.

Amazingly, we have seen all of this before – in the tobacco industry denial that both direct smoking and inhalation of second-hand smoke causes cancer, in the refusal of the environmental polluters to clean up chemical waste dump sites, in the product defense industry that blocks health-protective regulation of toxic chemicals such as flame retardants in furniture or endocrine-disrupting chemicals in children’s toys. Those stories need to be remembered and revisited. There is a big difference between true scientific debate and an artificially created uncertainty that cuts so close to the margin so as to put us all at risk. We need to err on the side of safety rather than dash headlong down a very deep precipice.

In May, Enviroblog readers saw a review of David Michaels’ recent book, Doubt Is Their Product, that describes how industry use of “scientific credentials for hire” and rampant conflicts of interests again and again derailed government’s attempts to establish health protective standards. Now, we can see the author himself (above) presenting an insightful and inspiring analysis of the real truth behind the façade created by the chemical industry, in a YouTube video of the Authors @ Google event.

In his talk, Michaels points to the common sense, yet desperately needed, steps to stop the chemical industry’s efforts to frustrate public health and the government regulators. There must be full disclosure of any and all industry sponsor involvement in scientific studies – no more secret, behind the scene studies that are than conveniently used by the FDA to refuse any evidence of harm. The independence of federal and state scientists and scientific advisory committees must be ensured. Known and likely hazards of chemical toxicities must be publicly disclosed rather than swept under the rug and hidden from the general public and the exposed people themselves, as happened in the case of the C8 or Teflon chemical (PFOA).

Do we need progress? Absolutely. But we also need foresight and wisdom to tread lightly, lest the melting ice – tiny, nearly invisible, nearly non-existent margin of safety – breaks underneath us. None of us wants a sudden collapse – when in doubt, leave the room for the unexpected, and use the best available science to inform ourselves and to take the decisions that will protect our health and the health of our families for a long time to come.

Olga V. Naidenko, PhD

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