What we don’t know about chemicals in the environment could fill the North Pacific Gyre

Everyone knows about the whole Nalgene Bottles of Death, right? The Federal government came out with a report saying that a chemical from the bottles, called bisphenal A (BPA) could be harmful to babies and maybe, possibly, adults. People flipped out, bottles were pulled off the shelves, and I had to spend 18 seconds of my day to decide that I am not an infant (physically), and I shall continue to drink out of my favorite Nalgene bottle. But the furor isn’t what’s interesting about all this to me. It’s that Nalgene has been making these bottles for decades! And *now* we figure out they might be bad for us? What’s going on? Well I’ll tell you what’s going on. We don’t know squat about how plastic affects our health in this country, or really about much of anything else that we make out of chemicals. The University of California Centers for Occupational and Environmental Health recently published a report that outlines the dire state of our knowledge of chemical effects on people and the environment, and it advocates for policy solutions to fix the problem.

Some choice quotes:

Tracking data on chemical use in California is also lacking: there is no state-wide information on the volume or location of chemicals or products produced or imported, no catalogue of their commercial and consumer uses, and virtually no record of their ultimate disposal or environmental fate.

Look, I’m a reporter by trade. I’m pretty aware of how much the government doesn’t know. But seriously, we still in the midst of a nation-wide mass freakout about securing our towns and cities from the ravages of terrorists, but we don’t track the vats of chemicals that slosh around American factories and trucks? Really?

Public agencies have insufficient information to identify chemical hazards of highest priority for human health and the environment.

I thought that was what public agencies got paid to do.

Producers are not currently required to assume full responsibility for the health effects and environmental consequences that can occur over the lifecycle of their products. As a result, there is little impetus to minimize the potential hazards associated with the manufacture, use or disposal of chemicals and products.

There’s nothing new about producers not having to pay for the external costs of their products (like disposal), but I like seeing it laid out like that.

With the exception of pesticides and pharmaceuticals, laws governing chemicals in the U.S. and California generally require public agencies, not producers, to carry the burden of proof that a chemical or product causes unreasonable harm to human health or the environment before the agency can implement protective measures.

And the kicker to that last item: “the standard of evidence exceeds agency resources.” So, to sum up, we have no idea where the chemicals are, we have no idea whether chemicals are or are not safe, when we think something might not be safe, it’s up to us to prove their not safe, and finally, we can’t afford to gather the evidence to prove it.

I could go on a whole policy rant about taxes and “Starve the beast” mentalities, but that’s not really science, technology, or oysters gone wild.

The report advocates a host of policy goals, including mandatory hazard and tracking data provided by the producers, a government run green labeling program, and tax incentives for using chemicals known to be safe for people, animals, water, and the environment. Let’s hope this report gets into the right hands.

[Thanks Blogfish for pointing us to the report.]

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3 Responses to What we don’t know about chemicals in the environment could fill the North Pacific Gyre

  1. Justin says:

    I also have a favorite Nalgene which has been everywhere with me. I for one will probably not give it up.

    Still, it is disturbing that we know so little about the effects of these chemicals. Our lives are so saturated with this stuff, what can we do? Hope that human tolerance to foreign and persistent substances adapts?

  2. Eric Wolff says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure we’ll adapt to chemical toxicity so much as just die younger from it. I don’t even want to think about what kind of gunk is floating in my bloodstream.

  3. The unit for the reaction csnntaot would be whatever you graphed. If you graphed mg/L versus minutes, then the unit is mg L-1 min-1Generally speaking, you should use molar concentration and seconds. The language of chemistry is in moles, as you know, and most chemical reactions are studied in short time frames, where seconds is the most appropriate unit.So, yes, convert to molar concentration and seconds, then plot that data. If there is a reason to do it differently, then that gets spelled out clearly in your discussion of the data.

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