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Chemical Innocence?

Emily Monosson

LEGALLY POISONED: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants. Carl F. Cranor. xii +315 pp. Harvard University Press, 2011. $35.

PCBs are one of the best kept secrets,” a chemist once told me. This was the 1980s, and he made his livelihood extracting polychlorinated biphenyls, a class of synthetic chemicals whose production in the United States was banned in 1979, from fish tissues and sediments. What he meant was that although we hadn’t yet fully understood the toxicology of these chemicals, there was plenty of concern about widespread contamination: enough to keep cadres of federal and private-industry chemists employed for years studying the PCBs which had made their way from factories into air and water and eventually into fish, birds, whales and humans. At the time, PCB analyses were about $500 a pop, and tests for dioxins (PCBs’ more nefarious cousin) cost more than $1,000. Add to this all the dollars that have been spent funding toxicologists and other health-related scientists, engineers and clean-up experts—and the more difficult-to-measure costs associated with health effects. For the past 30 years or more, our collective experience with these synthetic pollutants has been costly, and we—the public—are too often the ones footing the bill. As Carl F. Cranor describes them in Legally Poisoned, these costs represent the externalitiescosts not fully reflected in the market price of a product—so often associated with industrial chemicals and our ongoing reliance on postmarket environmental-health laws to protect us. Cranor explains that many important chemicals, including drugs, pesticides and food additives, are regulated by premarket testing, a flawed but relatively effective approach in which, as the phrase implies, toxicity testing is required before commercialization. But far too many chemicals, such as PCBs, bisphenol A (BPA) and polybrominated flame retardants are subject only to postmarket laws. These chemicals are commonly referred to as “innocent until proven guilty,” and they are the chemicals that all too often invade our most private spaces—our bodies.

The market is awash with books about toxic bodies, babies, rubber ducks, homes and workplaces (not to mention in-laws, men, faith and assets). Cranor, a legal and moral philosopher and a faculty member in the University of California, Riverside’s graduate environmental toxicology program, cannot resist reiterating how contaminated we all are. Nonetheless, Legally Poisoned offers a refreshingly different take on toxic chemicals in our lives, explaining how this situation came to be and what we might do about it.

That we are all involuntarily contaminated by chemicals used in consumer products or released by industry is largely the result of watered-down legislation, particularly the postmarket variety, which has let myriad toxic cats out of the bag—and left us not only holding the bag but trying to recapture all those cats while suffering the consequences of any number of diseases they may have spread. Cranor presents this case in chapters 2 and 4, “Nowhere to Hide,” and “Caveat Parens: A Nation at Risk from Contaminants,” respectively. Especially given the many articles, books and websites that already exist to spread this information, I found these to be the book’s weakest chapters. They rely very heavily on quoted material. In addition, I noted minor inaccuracies in Cranor’s toxicology. He suggests, for example, that biomagnification refers to the preferential retention of toxic congeners, or members of the chemical family, of PCBs. (Industry typically used PCB mixtures consisting of different proportions of up to 209 different chlorinated biphenyl congeners.) It may be splitting hairs to point this out, but biomagnification refers simply to the passing of chemicals upward through trophic levels, resulting in increased concentration of a particular chemical—whether it’s PCBs or a metal such as mercury. Although the process certainly contributes to the increased toxicity of PCB congeners as they concentrate up the food web, an important underlying mechanism is the preferential metabolism of various less-toxic congeners and, resulting from this, the retention of the more-toxic congeners that Cranor points out. Because terms like biomagnificaiton, bioaccumulation and bioconcentration are so often confused to begin with, it’s important in a book like this to make sure they are accurately defined. Additionally, the book includes a bit of redundancy (both within itself and with what has already been published), and at times I wondered whether a toxicologist had reviewed these chapters. If you are well versed in toxicology or have read any one of the many recent books on the subject, you may want to skim and move along. Beyond chapters 2 and 4, the book improves a great deal.

Chapter 3, “Discovering Disease, Dysfunction, and Death by Molecules,” provides a clearly written introduction to the different ways in which scientists gather information about the effects of chemicals on humans, from case reports to epidemiological studies, and the strengths and weaknesses of each type of study. It also includes an articulate discussion of animal studies. I teach introductory toxicology classes to nonmajors, and this is the kind of writing on the subject I’ve been looking for: It’s not overly technical but is detailed enough to explain why linking cause and effect in humans is so difficult—and why, despite our discomfort with animal studies, as long as we continue to develop chemicals that the public will breathe, drink or otherwise ingest, and until we find clearly better alternatives, we are stuck with those studies.

Cranor contends that, although we may morally reject human testing, in the context of postmarket chemical regulation, that is essentially what we are doing: We are involuntarily offering ourselves and our children as guinea pigs. This key point is explored in chapter 5, “Reckless Nation: How Existing Laws Fail to Protect Children,” and in the book’s final chapter, “What Kind of World Do We Want to Create?” These chapters reveal the gaping holes in the legal meshwork, which have resulted in a situation that, according to the author, not only “creates temptations for companies not to test their products,” but also rewards them for “rais[ing] doubt about the science that shows the toxicity of a product.” His take on the situation is unequivocal in its concern:

Citizens are now experimental subjects for the toxicity of products in our chemical society, an outcome that 1970s congressional and presidential committees knew was possible and hoped to avoid. However, in the end Congress failed to enact legislation to prevent it. Moreover, companies have a legal right to contaminate the public until there is sufficient science for a risk assessment and sufficient political will in a regulatory agency to reduce the risks.

As a toxicologist who shies away from legalese, I found these chapters, along with chapter 6, “A More Prudent Approach to Reduce Toxic Invasions,” most informative. They provide a readable (if not compelling) overview of the current framework of environmental health laws, analysis of those laws’ effectiveness and lack thereof and possible solutions.

Much of the book focuses in one way or another on rejecting our reliance on postmarket law and developing stronger and more universal premarket controls. Examples of such controls that Cranor highlights include the European Union’s legislative approach (Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals, or REACH); the Massachusetts law (the Toxics Use and Reduction Act) mandating that companies using large amounts of chemicals plan for pollution prevention, which is facilitated by the work of the Toxic Use and Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell; and the efforts of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg to make major amendments to the sweeping and ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (which, as of this writing, has yet to pass).

Cranor not only deals with captivating and current issues but also explains how we got into our current situation and more importantly how, given the public and political will, we might get out. This is an important point. I’ve been asked by students how, as an environmental toxicologist, I can stand to teach such gloom and doom. “Doesn’t it get depressing?” they ask. “No,” I say, “because you can do something about it.” But really I ought to be saying, “We can do something about it.” We can take meaningful action not by simply trying to avoid contact with toxic chemicals (or “self-help,” as Cranor puts it, which is essentially futile) but by prevention: speaking up and demanding changes to our chemical control laws, from premarket to postmarket, for all (or nearly all) chemicals.

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