The Problem with Plastics
Calls For Regulatory Reform
The result is an odd kind of convergence, as ordinary citizens, watchdogs like the Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Defense Fund, members of Congress and even the American Chemistry Council itself are together calling for regulatory reform, particularly the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). That landmark legislation, signed into law in 1976, was designed, said then-EPA administrator Russell Train, as “preventive medicine” that would “give public health far more of the weight that it deserves in the decisions by which chemicals are commercially made and marketed, by which they enter and spread throughout the human environment.”
The intent of Congress was “visionary,” says Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. “But the law is widely thought to have failed.”
Of the 82,000 chemicals originally placed in the TSCA portfolio, 62,000—BPA included—were grandfathered, or “assumed to be safe until proven otherwise by the EPA,” says Wilson. But in a 1994 review of the law’s progress to date, the Government Accountability Office noted that although EPA scientists had identified 14,000 chemicals or chemical groups that they felt should be of concern to public and environmental health, the agency had taken action against only five: PCBs, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin and hexavalent chromium. According to Government Accountability Office reports in 2006 and earlier this year, the situation has not changed much. “We can certainly do better,” says Wilson.
Michael Walls, an American Chemistry Council vice president who has butted heads with Wilson in congressional and state hearings, actually has come to agree with him on the need for genuine regulatory reform. “There’s a clear lack of public confidence in the TSCA,” says Walls, adding that his industry is none too pleased with the law either.
On August 4, the American Chemistry Council issued a detailed manifesto that, in 10 steps, laid out a substantive agenda for TSCA reform. Among its planks is one calling for special consideration of the risks chemicals might pose to children and, in the words of the document, “whether an extra margin of safety is needed to protect” them. “We are committed to protecting children,” says Walls, pointing out the council’s sponsorship of the upcoming federally directed National Children’s Study, which will examine the effects of environmental influences, including manmade chemicals, on the health and development of 100,000 kids, from before birth until the age of 21, across the United States.
The manifesto appeared on the same day that a coalition of environmental groups called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families published its own nine-point platform of TSCA reforms. And while there are points of disagreement between the two, even so harsh an industry critic as Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a coalition member, called the industry document “good and welcome news. The American Chemistry Council has come a long way, baby.”
A cynic might suggest that industry’s newfound approval of regulatory reform is simply a ploy to head off tougher measures, such as the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, a proposal pending in Congress whose provisions Walls finds unacceptable. And there is nagging concern among some in industry that, unless something substantive is done on the regulatory front, legislators might even choose to adopt the tenets of the European Union’s wide-ranging Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical Substances law. REACH, adopted in 2007, embraces the “precautionary principle” and calls for each of the 30,000 chemicals in use in Europe to be evaluated for safety.
And then, of course, there is the burgeoning movement toward “green chemistry,” a term coined by Paul Anastas, Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at F&ES, when he headed the EPA’s Industrial Chemistry Branch. Anastas, who is awaiting confirmation as President Obama’s choice to lead the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, defined the field this way: “Green chemistry is the utilization of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of chemical products.”
The definition appeared in Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, the 1998 textbook co-written by Anastas and chemist John Warner, which set the ground rules for the field. Warner now heads the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, which is in the business of finding environmentally friendlier alternatives to current chemicals and processes. So far, he and his team have come up with a more efficient way to deliver medications that ensures that less of them go into the environment, as well as a cleaner solvent for working with silicon wafers and a nontoxic hair coloring system.
“There are lots of alternatives for certain applications,” says Warner.
For example, in the late 1990s, can manufacturers in Japan responded to consumer concerns by coming up with both a BPA-free liner material and a process that prevents most of the BPA from leaching. Kaiser Permanente, the nonprofit health care system, pushed its suppliers to find a replacement for DEHP and other potential problematic plastics. And in a survey that Warner conducted with his students when he was teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, he discovered that about half the merchants in the area were no longer issuing cash register and credit card receipts made from a carbonless material that contained BPA. These receipts, he feels, can be a significant source of exposure to the chemical “and, clearly, one that’s absolutely unnecessary.”
What’s holding up progress on the green chemistry front, says Warner, is a combination of industrial inertia, regulatory uncertainty and, in many cases, the lack of a good alternative.
“There are many steps involved in the manufacturing process, and if you have to, say, come up with four or five replacements, not just one, then the economics stink,” he says. “And in a world where we’re focused only on the next quarter’s profits, who can afford to take the risk? This is where government has to step in.”
Federal funding for basic research into greener alternatives is crucial, as is regulatory reform that provides the public with information about the chemical nature of plastics in our lives and rules tough enough to protect us from the new kinds of endocrinological harms that are of increasing concern. At the same time, he cautions, any new regulations should seek to “avoid stifling innovation by scaring away the very people who are trying to do the right thing.”
Warner is a member of this vanguard. “I’m convinced the future is green, and while I don’t know how long it’ll take to get there, I think we’re on the right trajectory,” he says.
To get there, says Wargo of F&ES, “We need a national plastics policy that makes sense. This will require regulatory institutions that are independent and transparent, as well as an increase in what I call ‘green intelligence.’ We live in a vacuum of information, and a product labeling system that is simply a list of 40-letter-long chemicals is not good enough. Most people don’t have a clue about their exposure levels, and the fault lies with government and industry. In my book, my objective is to make readers aware of where these generally invisible dangers are now—and how they can be avoided.”
Meanwhile, BPA and phthalates continue to circulate in the environment and in our bloodstreams, from the moment of conception to the end of our hopefully-not-endocrine-disrupted lives. “On the regulatory side, we’re in a hole, and it’ll take us a long time to dig ourselves out,” says Wargo. “Until that happens, it’s like the Wild West. The public bears the risks of exposure, and the public has to decide how to avoid them.”
At the end of his book, Green Intelligence, Wargo offers many ways to minimize exposure (see sidebar at right). But, in a lesson that shows just how hard this is to achieve in modern life, one day his well failed. In watching the repair, he noticed the metal tank in which the water was stored and pressurized before it went into the pipes and ultimately into his tap water. The tank, he discovered, was lined with BPA, which prevents corrosion. Finding a BPA-free replacement was difficult, so he left well enough, or what Wargo, like many of us, hoped was well enough, alone.