[Marxism] A Rising Tide of Contaminants

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 30 13:04:25 MDT 2014

NY Times, Sept. 30 2014
A Rising Tide of Contaminants

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 
chemical exposures.

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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list