[Marxism] A Rising Tide of Contaminants
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 30 13:04:25 MDT 2014
NY Times, Sept. 30 2014
A Rising Tide of Contaminants
By DEBORAH BLUM
Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of environmental health sciences at the
University of Minnesota, decided last year to investigate the chemistry
of the nearby Zumbro River. She and her colleagues were not surprised to
find traces of pesticides in the water.
Neither were they shocked to find prescription drugs ranging from
antibiotics to the anti–convulsive carbamazepine. Researchers realized
more than 15 years ago that pharmaceuticals – excreted by users, dumped
down drains – were slipping through wastewater treatment systems.
But though she is a leading expert in so-called emerging contaminants,
Dr. Swackhamer was both surprised and dismayed by the sheer range and
variety of what she found. Caffeine drifted through the river water,
testament to local consumption of everything from coffee to energy
drinks. There were relatively high levels of acetaminophen, the
over-the-counter painkiller. Acetaminophen causes liver damage in humans
at high doses; no one knows what it does to fish.
“We don’t know what these background levels mean in terms of
environmental or public health,” she said. “It’s definitely another
thing that we’re going to be looking at.”
Or, she might have said, one of many, many other things.
The number of chemicals contaminating our environment is growing at
exponential rate, scientists say. A team of researchers at the U.S.
Geological Survey tracks them in American waterways, sediments,
landfills and municipal sewage sludge, which is often converted into
agricultural fertilizer. They’ve found steroid hormones and the
antibacterial agent triclosan in sewage; the antidepressant fluoxetine
(Prozac) in fish; and compounds from both birth control pills and
detergents in the thin, slimy layer that forms over stones in streams.
“We’re looking at an increasingly diverse array of organic and inorganic
chemicals that may have ecosystem health effects,” said Edward Furlong,
a research chemist with the U.S.G.S. office in Denver and one of the
first scientists to track the spread of pharmaceutical compounds in the
nation’s waterways. “Many of them are understudied and unrecognized.”
In an essay last week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology,
titled “Re-Emergence of Emerging Contaminants,” editor-in-chief Jerald
L. Schnoor called attention to both the startling growth of newly
registered chemical compounds and our inadequate understanding of older
The American Chemical Society, the publisher of the journal, maintains
the most comprehensive national database of commercially registered
chemical compounds in the country. “The growth of the list is
eye-popping, with approximately 15,000 new chemicals and biological
sequences registered every day,” Dr. Schnoor wrote.
Not all of those are currently in use, he emphasized, and the majority
are unlikely to be dangerous. “But, for better or worse, our commerce is
producing innovative, challenging new compounds,” he wrote.
Dr. Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the
University of Iowa, also noted rising concern among researchers about
the way older compounds are altered in the environment, sometimes taking
new and more dangerous forms.
Some research suggests that polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are
broken down by plants into even more toxic metabolites. Equally
troubling, scientists are finding that while PCBs are banned, they
continue to seep into the environment in unexpected ways, such as from
impurities in the caulk of old school buildings.
PCBs have long been identified as hazardous, but not every contaminant
is so risky, Dr. Schnoor emphasized.
“Out of the millions of chemical compounds that we know about, thousands
have been tested and there are very few that show important health
effects,” he said in an interview.
But, he added, the development of new compounds and the increasing
discovery of unexpected contaminants in the environment means that the
nation desperately needs a better system for assessing and prioritizing
That includes revisiting the country’s antiquated chemical regulation
and assessment regulations. The Toxic Substances Control Act went into
effect in 1976, almost 40 years ago, and has not been updated since.
The law does require the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain an
inventory of registered industrial compounds that may be toxic, but it
does not require advance safety testing of those materials. Of the some
84,000 compounds registered, only a fraction have ever been fully tested
for health effects on humans. The data gap includes some materials, like
creosote and coal tar derivatives, which are currently manufactured at
rates topping a million pounds a year.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Schnoor and other scientists want to see the act
updated and transformed into a mechanism for science-based risk
assessment of suspect compounds. Indeed, everyone from researchers to
environmental groups to the American chemical industry agree that the
law is frustratingly inadequate.
“Our chemical safety net is more hole than net,” said Ken Cook,
president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. The
Food and Drug Administration, for instance, doesn’t regulate the
environmental spread of pharmaceuticals. And the toxic substances law
ignores their presence in waterways.
“Where does that leave us in terms of scientific understanding of what
drugs to regulate?” Mr. Cook said.
Anne Womack Kolton, vice president for communications at the American
Chemistry Council, an organization representing chemical manufacturers,
agreed. “Think about the world 40 years ago,” she said. “It was a vastly
different place. It’s common sense to revise the law and make it
consistent with what we know about chemicals today.”
The two sides don’t agree on what standards for chemical testing are
needed or what kind of protective restrictions should be put in place
for chemicals deemed hazardous. And they are in deep disagreement about
whether a revised federal law should preempt actions taken by
tough-minded states like California.
The council argues for federal standardization as the most efficient
route; environmental groups believe that such an action would weaken
public protection. Legislators have so far not been able to resolve
those differences. This month yet another proposed update to the act
stalled in a Senate committee.
“Congress has not sent an environmental law to the president’s desk in
18 years,” Mr. Cook said. “And in the current environment, it’s very
difficult to get something through.”
Still, Dr. Swackhamer, who recently stepped down as chair of the
E.P.A.’s science advisory board, notes that despite the lack of
legislation, scientists have been working toward better ways to assess
the risks posed by the increasing numbers of chemicals in our lives.
Some may help whittle the inventory of T.S.C.A. compounds down to a
priority list that focuses on less than a thousand products.
That’s still a daunting number of chemical unknowns. But given the tens
of thousands of materials in the inventory, it’s a start.
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