Article — From the October 2007 issue

Toxic Inaction

Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood

In the late 1990s, citizens of several European countries learned from newspaper reports that their infants were constantly being exposed to a host of toxic chemicals. Babies were sleeping in pajamas treated with cancer-causing flame retardants; they were sucking on bottles laced with plastic additives believed to alter hormones; their diapers were glued together with nerve-damaging toxins normally used to kill algae on the hulls of ships. When European health officials tried to look into the matter, they were confounded by how little they actually knew about these and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Regulators discovered that they had no way of assessing the dangers of long-term exposure to everyday products. Some manufacturers of baby goods did not even know what was in their own products, since chemical producers were under no obligation to tell them. Such data, if it existed at all, was secreted away in the vaults of chemical companies and had never been submitted to any government authority.

In the years since those news reports, the nascent science of bio-monitoring has provided further insight into how the industrial chemicals that are in clothes, food packaging, cosmetics, toys, electronics, and just about every modern convenience are actually lodging in the human body. Greenpeace U.K. released a study in 2005 that found numerous toxic chemicals in the umbilical-cord blood of European infants. That same year, World Wildlife Fund International tested the blood of three generations of women from twelve European countries. The largest number of chemicals—sixty-three—was found in the group of grandmothers. Given the number of years they had had to accumulate exposure, this result was perhaps not surprising. But the next-highest level was among their grandchildren, aged twelve to twenty-eight, who in their short lifetimes had amassed fifty-nine different toxic chemicals. The blood of a nineteen-year-old Italian, who later sent me her test results, included brominated flame retardants, which are potential liver, thyroid, and neurological toxins that are used to coat many electronics; the pesticides DDT and lindane, the latter of which is suspected of contributing to breast and other cancers; perfluorinated chemicals, known carcinogens that are used as stain- and water-repellents on clothing, furniture, and nonstick cookware; and artificial musk aromas, found in soaps and perfumes, that scientists claim can reduce the body’s ability to expel other toxins.

Bio-monitoring tests in the United States have revealed the same dangerous chemicals making their way into the blood of Americans. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed screening for the presence of 148 toxic chemicals in the blood of a broad cross section of Americans; it found that the vast majority of subjects harbored almost all the toxins. In the same year, the CDC’s National Survey on Family Growth concluded that rates of infertility were rising for women under the age of twenty-five, a spike many scientists attribute, at least in part, to routine exposure to toxic chemicals. The Environmental Working Group conducted tests on the umbilical cords of ten newborns in 2006 and discovered that cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, and gene-mutating chemicals had passed from the mothers to their fetuses through the placenta.

Up until the 1970s, no country had imposed any meaningful oversight of the tens of thousands of chemicals that had entered the marketplace since World War II. Then, in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which granted the government the authority to track industrial chemicals and to place restrictions on any that proved harmful to humans or the environment. Because the United States was the world’s preeminent economic power, other major chemical producers—Germany, France, and Britain—soon brought their national regulations into line with TSCA so as not to lose the U.S. market. Shortly thereafter, Japan and other countries hoping to conduct trade with the West also had to adopt the central principles of the law as their own. Thus, America set the rules for chemical regulation across the globe.

But TSCA came with an enormous loophole, a caveat leveraged into it by the powerful chemical industry: every chemical already on the market before 1979 was exempted from the law’s primary screening requirements. Three decades after TSCA came into being, 95 percent of all chemicals in circulation have never undergone any testing for toxicity or their impact on the environment. The extent to which TSCA has failed to regulate hazardous substances is now evident in the bio-monitoring results in Europe and America.

Europeans have recently decided to do something about all the untested chemicals that are ending up in their blood. “The assumption among Americans is, ‘If it’s on the market, it’s okay,’” explained Robert Donkers, an E.U. official who was asked to review Europe’s regulatory laws after the baby-product scare. “That fantasy is gone in Europe.” Donkers’s efforts were the first steps in what became, seven years later, a new E.U. chemical regulation called REACH—Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. REACH amounts to a revolution in how chemicals are managed, and in how production decisions around the world will be made from now on. Regulations set by the most powerful countries have quickly become, through trade, the international standard. And the European Union, with a market of 480 million people stretching across twenty-seven countries, is now significantly larger than the United States in both population and wealth; Europe’s gross national product surged past that of the United States in 2005, and the gap increased when two more countries joined the E.U. earlier this year. The E.U. is now the most significant trading partner for every continent except Australia. The ripple effects from this shift in economic power have been one of the great untold stories of the new century.

Indeed, Europe is now compelling other nations’ manufacturers to conform to regulations that are far more protective of people’s health than those in the United States. Europe has emerged not only as the world’s leading economic power but also as one of its moral leaders. Those roles were once filled by the United States.

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is the editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. His new book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, was publ

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October 2019