Chemical Tsunami Goes Unnoticed


Until its prohibition in 1937, marijuana was one of the top three most prescribed medicines in the United States. Today, the use of marijuana for just medical reasons is a controversial topic, and we spend billions annually fighting its mere existence.

We largely ignore, however, the unregulated chemical tidal wave that overwhelms nearly every facet of our lives.

More than 14,000 man-made chemicals are regularly added to our food supply, to make it unnaturally saltier, sweeter, crisper and more colorful. Federal laws don’t require most household cleaning products to list their ingredients.

Senomyx — a San Diego-based company that believes its “novel flavors, flavor enhancers, and bitter blockers will enable our collaborators to achieve a competitive advantage and/or improve the nutritional profile of their products while maintaining or enhancing taste” — has contracted with Kraft, Nestlé, Coca Cola and Campbell’s Soup to put a chemical in food that masks bitter flavors by turning off bitter flavor receptors on the tongue.

Of course, these chemical compounds will not be required to be listed separately on food labels. On the contrary, they will be placed under the umbrella of “artificial flavors.” This generic term already hides countless chemical concoctions.

Nearly 85,000 chemicals are used commercially in the United States and 20 percent of those are kept secret under federal law, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified at least 6,000 chemicals that we are exposed to routinely, and nobody knows the long-term impact of this boiling chemical stew. Manufactures, their lobbyists and their well-compensated buddies in elected office want to keep it that way.

Our dysfunctional political system, preoccupied with foreign threats, cutting taxes and talking tough, allows — no, encourages — Big Industry to introduce new chemicals into every aspect of our lives, without strenuous testing or even a hint of concern.

They’re safe, they claim. Trust us, they say.

Meanwhile, the U.S. chicken industry continues to add chlorine to chilling baths where carcasses are cooled after slaughter. The chlorine is supposed to kill pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter — strengthened by our overuse of antibiotics by industrial agriculture — that can spread when hundreds of freshly slaughtered chickens share the same tank.

Soaking slaughtered chickens in this chemical bath is largely ineffective, according to studies. We continue to do it anyway.

The safety of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs, or flame retardants) has been questioned since the 1990s, yet most states, including Rhode Island, haven’t banned the sale of products that contain these compounds that accumulate in human fat and have been linked to liver and kidney damage.

U.S. pesticide use has increased 3,000 percent since 1940, but that massive increase hasn’t been enough to feed our greed. In the financial interest of Monsanto and other chemical-producing giants, the federal government permits the exportation of pesticides we have long deemed too hazardous to use here.

Our shortsightedness is blinding.

We know little about the harmful effect of exposure to phthalates — a controversial plastics chemical used widely in the manufacture of consumer products. We are exposed to this chemical daily, as it is found in personal care products, paints, building materials, household furnishing, clothing, dentures, children’s toys, cleaning materials, insecticides, food and pharmaceuticals.

Studies have shown that phthalates accumulate in tissues and that they could be involved in the development of pubertal gynecomastia — the abnormal development of large mammary glands in males.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents such public health pillars as Dupont and the Dow Chemical Co., regularly dismisses any and all critical studies with this overused claim: “This study does not fit with established science.”

Our schoolchildren aren’t even safe from our reckless use of chemicals.

A recent Associated Press investigation found that contaminants have surfaced at public and private schools in all 50 states. During the past decade, according to the news agency’s investigation, the drinking water at thousands of schools across the country has been found to contain unsafe levels of lead, pesticides, arsenic, disinfectants and dozens of other toxins.

If a landlord doesn’t tell a tenant about lead paint in an apartment, he can go to prison. But bureaucracy allows too many students to quench their thirst with tainted drinking water.

The responsibility for safe drinking water is spread among too many local, state and federal agencies, and thus problems go unreported. Finding a solution would require a new — and expensive — national strategy for monitoring water in schools, but we’re too fixated on spending billions building fences along the Mexican border.

The EPA doesn’t even have the authority to require testing for all schools and can only provide guidance on environmental practices. The EPA has even acknowledged that its database of violations is plagued with errors and omissions, and that it doesn’t specifically monitor incoming state data on school water quality.

Schools that get water from local utilities aren’t required to test for toxins because the EPA already regulates water providers. That means there is no way to ensure detection of contaminants caused by a school’s own plumbing.

In fact, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all schools nationwide do not test their water for lead.

So, from 1998 to 2008, according to the AP investigation, we end up with these frightening facts:

Water in about 100 school districts and 2,250 schools breached federal safety standards. Those schools and districts racked up more than 5,550 separate violations.

California, which has the most schools of any state, also recorded the most violations with 612, followed by Ohio (451), Maine (417), Connecticut (318) and Indiana (289).

Nearly half the violators in California were repeat offenders. One elementary school in Tulare County, in the farm country of the Central Valley, broke safe-water laws 20 times.

The most frequently cited contaminant was coliform bacteria, followed by lead and copper, arsenic and nitrates.

Twenty-eight children at a Minnesota elementary school experienced severe stomach aches and nausea after drinking water tainted with lead and copper, the result of a poorly installed treatment system.

A California school posted a sign above the kitchen sink that warned students not to drink from the tap because the water is tainted with nitrates, a potential carcinogen, and DBCP, a pesticide scientists say may cause male sterility.

As consumers we need to start demanding access to information so we can determine the kind of chemicals that we are introducing into our homes, schools, businesses and environment, and whether there are any risks associated with them.

Manufacturers should be required to detail products’ ingredients, as well as any industry-led research on the products’ health and environmental effects.

Last year, environmental advocates asked a court to use a 1971 New York state law to force manufactures to reveal just what makes up such household staples as Ajax, Ivory soap, Tide, Lysol and Arm & Hammer.

Companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Church & Dwight Co. Inc. and Reckitt-Benckiser Inc. — asked a state Supreme Court judge to dismiss the case. The case is stuck in legal limbo.

While studies have linked cleaning product components to asthma, antibiotic resistance and hormone changes, the industry’s major trade group, the Soap and Detergent Association, has assailed the research as flawed, claimed the legal case is unwarranted and said fears about health risks are misinformed.

Let us be the judge of that, and list all the ingredients. We demand to know.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.


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  1. THANK YOU, FRANK! This is one of the best articles I have ever seen on the subject of chemicals in everyday life and products – and I've read many! I wish I could make it required reading for everybody in the country!

  2. Thank you for this, Frank! I totally agree this is an overlooked issue that should be at the top of our eco-agendas. The chemicals and plastics we discard at will into our ecosystems and food chains is a travesty.

  3. Great article! Long time RI commercial fishermen have observed many health related issue with much of the resident marine life of Narragansett Bay and are very concerned. One can only imagine what the impacts of the many waste water treatment facility’s and the chemicals they release into the bay have contributed to these many health issues. For hundreds of years the bay has provided many jobs in the fishing industry and a healthy food source of its many resident fish and shellfish species. It appears both could be lost in the near future unless we wake up and change our ways. Water that appears clean does not necessarily make for a healthy marine environment.
    Long time observer of Narragansett Bay.

  4. Excellent article, Frank! When I picked up my car for service the other day, I inhaled the air freshener with which my air system had been treated, I wondered what I was breathing in. Toxic chemicals are predominant in the name brand deodorizers, personal care products and household cleaners that are so heavily marketed through mainstream media channels with ad dollars. Chemical dyes, sweeteners and preservatives are pervasive in the school breakfasts and snacks fed to our children. Killer chemicals are sprayed on our lawns and trees with little regard for the pollinators that sustain our natural system of real food. Thank you for writing about this.

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