Who Decides How Toxic is Toxic?

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By Stephen Lester.

Years ago, when I first got involved in toxics work, I thought that determining the toxicity of a chemical was based on the evidence, the scientific evidence on exposure and health outcomes, primarily in people. Now I know better.

Take for example, the case of asbestos. Earlier this year, the USEPA banned asbestos use in the United States. This was not an immediate ban, but one in which the industry has 5 years to phase out its reliance on asbestos.

Despite mounds of evidence collected over decades on the dangers of asbestos, this toxic mineral has continued to be used in the US in brake lining, sheet gaskets and in the production of chlorine. This asbestos is mostly  imported, as asbestos was last mined in the US in 2002. Think about that. How is it possible that a known human carcinogen linked to more than 40,000 deaths a year is still legally being used in this country?

It was more than 40 years ago that scientific consensus concluded that asbestos was a highly carcinogenic substance, that ship workers had higher rates of a very rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma and that it was caused by exposure to asbestos.

EPA tried in 1989 to ban asbestos, but its regulation was overturned by a federal judge who allowed asbestos use to continue and for companies to import it. There was also the Ban Asbestos in America Act introduced in the early 2000s that would have banned importing manufacturing and distributing asbestos, but it was never voted on by Congress.   

How does a chemical as toxic as asbestos stay on the market despite clear evidence of its toxicity and impact on people? The answer is the political power and influence of the companies that stand to benefit from its use in products such as brake lining, sheet gaskets and in the production of chlorine. The biggest users of asbestos have made arguments for decades that have prevented EPA from taking action to restrict the uses of asbestos. For example, the American Chemistry Council who represents the chlorine industry has argued it “would make it difficult for water utilities to buy chlorine, threatening the safety of the nation’s drinking water.”

These companies challenge the agency at every step of the regulatory process with legal and scientific questions and political fights. An article in the Washington Post last year quoted Bob Sussman, former EPA deputy administrator during the Clinton Administration, saying “Industry’s game plan has been to attack EPA for overreaching even while working to assure that EPA accomplishes far less than the public and many in Congress expected.” It’s a strategy calculated to make a struggling agency even weaker and more paralyzed by making every decision  contentious and contested.”

The scientific evidence in isolation can evaluate the toxicity of a chemical. But it’s the political and economic factors that drive decisions on how well people are protected from exposure to toxic chemicals, not the science. Toxic chemicals are not restricted or controlled, they are managed. In large part this is because the scientific evidence linking exposure to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals is very limited and incomplete. So, in the absence of clear evidence, the government and the politicians cannot rely on the science to answer the questions people have about whether their health problems are caused by the chemicals they were exposed to. 

This situation is not likely to change any time soon. People will continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals whether it’s asbestos, lead, trichloroethylene or any of hundreds of other toxic chemicals. Corporate America has enormous control over EPA, FDA and other government agencies that regulate toxic chemicals. Don’t expect these agencies to protect you, even when they want to. It’s what the companies want that dictates what happens. It’s the companies that decide whether a chemical is toxic in a community setting or even in a workplace. It’s the companies that decide how much a chemical or a mixture of chemicals that you can be exposed to. It’s the companies that decide, not the scientists and not the people who were exposed.    

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