Chemical Safety: A Wake Up Call

It’s past time for massive environmental reform in the United States. Neither the EPA nor the Toxic Substances Control Act are protecting the health and safety of the people of this planet, and we are all already paying the consequences, whether we realize it or not.

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by Nathaniel Rich titled, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”. The piece, an incredible (and highly disturbing) story, exposes major gaps in our nation’s chemical regulation. It illustrates the devastating impact of such regulatory failures not only on specific communities, but on the nation (and the world) as a whole.

In the article, Rich artfully details the way in which the chemical company DuPont knowingly poisoned the water supply of those living near its factory in West Virginia with large quantities of a fluorochemical known as PFOA. The contamination event occurred over a series of decades, during which members of the Parkersburg and surrounding communities, (six districts in total) ingested dangerous levels of the chemical, infiltrating the towns’ water supplies and dozens of private wells.

Studying the affected population, scientists found a probable link between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, preeclampsia, and ulcerative colitis. Then in May this year, 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement, a report expressing serious concerns regarding the production of all fluorochemicals, not just PFOA. This report stated that fluorochemicals, or PFASs, are likely endocrine receptors, interfering with human reproduction and metabolism, and causing cancer and nervous-system disorders.

Unfortunately, due to PFOA’s persistence in the environment and widespread manufacture and use, nearly all of us in the world now already have some level of the toxin in our bloodstream. We absorb the chemical through the air, the food that we eat, the use of nonstick cookware, the umbilical cord, and/or by drinking tainted water.

None of this should have happened, because PFOA never should have been approved for manufacture and use. But it was not a regulated substance. It was not recognized by the government as a poison, because no one had run tests to determine its lethality before producing it.

The NY Times Magazine piece describes the absurdity of the situation well, writing, “The E.P.A. can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the E.P.A. has restricted only five chemicals, out of the tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.”

Joe Kieger, a West Virginia schoolteacher, filed a class action suit in 2001 against DuPont, alleging (successfully) that the company knowingly poisoned the drinking water of tens of thousands of people, causing widespread incidences of cancer and birth defects. He spoke to the New York Times Magazine, quoting, “We see a situation that has gone from Washington Works, to statewide, to the United States, and now it’s everywhere, it’s global. We’ve taken the cap off something here. But it’s just not DuPont. Good God. There are 60,000 unregulated chemicals out there right now. We have no idea what we’re taking.”

It’s time that we put a stop to this. Chemical companies must be able to prove (through a thorough investigations conducted by independent agencies) that any new chemical is safe to use, and that it is being manufactured and disposed of appropriately, before they should be allowed to produce and/or utilize it. This mass production, distribution, and use of thousands of chemicals without prior independent safety testing and heavy oversight and regulation is inexcusable. It is madness.

No one should have to die for common sense policy to be put into place. But they already have. Now it is up to the rest of us to take a stand.