Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers


USA Today
23 April 2003

Out of the frying pan, into a fire

By Elizabeth Weise

Fifty years ago, Americans wrapped their sandwiches in waxed paper, poured their milk from glass bottles, wore rubberized coats when it rained, drove cars made from steel and reheated dinner in an old pie tin in the oven.

Today our sandwiches come in aluminum-plastic pockets, ready to be popped in the microwave. Pizza boxes and French fry containers keep grease off us with high-tech coatings. When it rains, we wear Gore-Tex, which keeps the water out but lets our skin breathe.

Our cars are lighter, cheaper and more energy-efficient because they're made from a dizzying array of metals and plastics. At night, we pull dinner out of the refrigerator in plastic containers that can go straight from freezer to microwave without cracking or burning.

But there may be a price for all that convenience.

* Last week the Environmental Protection Agency announced concerns about a widely used chemical called perfluorinated acid. Tests in rats have shown reduced fetal weight of pups, delays in maturation and kidney problems — and 92% of Americans tested had trace amounts of it in their blood. That's because so-called PFOA or its byproducts are used in the manufacturing process for Teflon and Gore-Tex and can be released as the original Scotchguard and Stainmaster break down. PFOA also has other industrial uses.
* This month a paper in the journal Current Biology reported that a commonly used plastic ingredient called bisphenol A caused abnormal pregnancies in mice and might cause reproductive problems in people.
* Last year a Swedish study found that a flame retardant used in TV sets, computer circuit boards and casings, foams and fabric called polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PBDE, is rapidly accumulating in human breast milk. The chemical is thought to cause thyroid cancer and possibly neurodevelopmental problems in test animals.

These are by no means the first examples of wondrous new technologies we've taken and run with, only to find out years later that we've unwittingly harmed ourselves and our world.

The pesticide DDT was touted as revolutionary in the 1940s before it became apparent that it caused the eggshells of predatory birds like the bald eagle to thin, lowering their numbers dramatically. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were prized for their chemical stability until scientists discovered they eroded the ozone layer. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were the darling of manufacturers until their toxicity became apparent.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the question many are asking is whether the convenience we gain from all these new materials is worth the pain they may cause us and whether we need stronger testing rules to avert environmental catastrophes.

"It's hard for people to get their minds around the fact that there's something like 70,000 chemicals in commercial production and about 10% of them (in quantities of) more than 1 million pounds a year," says Edward Groth, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. "And the sad fact is we don't know anything about the toxicity or environmental effects of most of them."

'An unregulated experiment'

Americans already are "part of an unregulated experiment that allows toxic chemicals to bioaccumulate in their bodies," says Nena Baker, author of a forthcoming book on the accumulation of industrial pollutants in our bodies.

Baker believes it's fair for the public to demand information about what the chemicals in our environment might be doing to us. Testing isn't "horrifically expensive," she says. "But the sad part is it's being driven after the fact. The burden is on science to say something is harmful before you can go back and get a better picture of the costs and the effects. It's not to say that there aren't terrific benefits. But do we really want to continue in the way that public policy has unfolded in this country, which is basically that everybody is a guinea pig?"

But how to deal with these issues is unclear. There are two differing attitudes about how new technology should be evaluated. Historically in this country we've applied a risk-benefit analysis — do the potential benefits of the technology outweigh the potential risks? Most businesses evaluate their products on this basis.

Consumer advocates, environmentalists and the European community, however, are turning toward something called the precautionary principle. This is based on a German legal notion of the Vorsorgeprinzip, literally the "forecaring principle." It started in Germany when laws were enacted to save forests by reducing the power plant emissions that cause acid rain.

Better safe than sorry

It was a precaution because at the time there wasn't 100% scientific certainty that power plant emissions were causing acid rain. That concept has since been embraced by many in the environmental movement and was defined at a major conference in 1998 as: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

In everyday language: Better safe than sorry.

"It's about avoiding the 'whoops' factor," says Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

At chemical giant DuPont, there's concern that such a regulatory system would be costly and complicated. "We've been able to accomplish a great deal of work on the hazards of chemicals under a voluntary framework," says Ed Mongan, director of energy and environment.

"We certainly believe that a precautionary approach is prudent," Mongan says, "but some of the precautionary principles that are coming out of Europe and elsewhere do have the potential to stop innovation."

The precautionary principle doesn't mean we have to go back to living in the Stone Age, says Raffensperger. But it does mean that we have to watch for indications of trouble provided by the chemicals themselves.

"If the chemicals show themselves to be really mobile in the environment and are showing up in places they don't belong, then we should probably pay a lot more attention, and a lot faster," she says.

And it's not impossible. Europe has already embraced it. Draft legislation will soon be released by the European Union to require that over the next 11 years all chemicals be treated like new ones and be required to undergo safety testing.

Not only that, but those chemicals of highest concern because of their environmental infiltration, reproductive toxicity or carcinogenicity will be treated like drugs, meaning the system will presume they're dangerous and require applications for their use. The rules, if approved, would go into effect in 2005.

"It's so much bigger than anything we could conceive of in the U.S.," says Joel Tickner, an environmental scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

But it also comes out of a very different cultural experience. Europe is much less trusting of the people overseeing new technologies.

Europeans go cautiously

An excellent example of this trust issue is the case of genetically modified food. As a nation, we've said it's probably safe unless we find out otherwise. Europeans, applying the precautionary principle, say if you can't prove it's safe, it's probably dangerous.

U.S. consumers by and large believe the government is working to make sure our food is safe to eat.

Not so in Europe. In the debacle of mad cow disease, it came out that governments were aware of the danger long before they warned the public. Add to that an ill-handled case of dioxin in animal feed and then foot-and-mouth disease and you have, in the words of Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, "a complete collapse in confidence."

"In a time when people don't trust the experts, how do you make these decisions? The precautionary principle is an acknowledgement that you can't," he says. "They're saying that since they can't judge the acceptability of risk on behalf of their citizens, they're going to essentially say that no or very little risk is acceptable."

But even in a political climate where it might be possible to judge acceptable risk, scientists are quick to point out that it's impossible to prove that anything is 100% safe.

Instead, a rational approach would be to use science to arrive at an understanding of how a new technology or chemistry will work, says Harvey Glick, director for scientific affairs at Monsanto, a company with much to lose if this precautionary principle takes hold. Monsanto has pinned its fortunes for the coming century on biotechnology in agriculture.

"The real risk to society is to not develop technology that can deliver real benefits to society. It's important to understand the magnitude of risk and then marry that with the societal benefits that may accrue," Glick says.

But the truth is that these questions don't really have hard-and-fast answers, Rodemeyer says. We assume there's a scientific answer and there isn't. "What level of risk is acceptable is ultimately a policy question, and yet we keep asking our scientists to answer it — and they can't."





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