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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Our Toxic Failure

Is it really so radical to ask that companies test chemicals for safety before using them?

Now that it’s already been phased out, the world can agree that a chemical used in Teflon — the famous coating on nonstick pots and pans — was toxic.

A recent New York Times Magazine article told the story of the heroic victims who paid with their health and the lawyer who represented them. 

Together they ensured that a study was done to link this chemical, called PFOA, to the health problems it caused.

PFOA is thought to be linked to several cancers, as well as thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and more. It’s also probably in your blood.

This chemical is just one in a class of fluorine-based chemicals with slippery, nonstick properties. They’re often used in waterproof or stain-resistant items — even in Oral B’s Glide dental floss.

Chew on that for a moment. Oral B puts this chemical in a product designed to go straight into your mouth.

The same week this article came out, I got a long-awaited jacket that I’d been researching for months. I go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the summer, and it can snow up there in July. This jacket is the lightest weight, warmest option available.

I stalked the jacket online, prowling the sales and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. I got it in last season’s style, using an extra discount coupon over and above the already reduced price. The $350 jacket was now mine, for less than half the price. So what if it was hot pink?

Here’s what: My new jacket has a durable water resistant (“DWR”) coating. So does my sleeping bag. And, for that matter, so does my old jacket the new one is replacing. Theyall contain chemicals related to the one in the article.

You can also find these concoctions in shoes (including my Gore-Tex hiking boots), carpet, microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, furniture, and — of course — nonstick cookware.

The Green Science Policy Institute includes these “highly fluorinated chemicals” as one of its six classes of “chemicals of concern.” Chemicals in these classes are often toxic, so researchers advocate precautions in their use and regulation.

The institute acknowledges that there may be cases when some of these chemicals are needed — or even safe, once they’re properly tested. But that means we must test them first, and even then only use them when they’re absolutely needed. Do we really need suspect chemicals in dental floss?

Ironically, the newer chemicals that have replaced PFOA — the ones used in my jacket and perhaps yours, too — haven’t been tested as much as the older ones we no longer use.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t toxic. It just means that we don’t know if they are.

They’re regulated by a law called the Toxic Substances Control Act, which the chemical industry itself helped write. Unlike pharmaceuticals, new manmade chemicals don’t need to be tested before they’re used or sold, and companies can keep a chemical’s identity a trade secret.

It’s wonderful that Americans can come together and agree that a chemical we no longer use is toxic — albeit, now that it’s already in our environment and in our blood. But why can’t we also come together about the other chemicals, the ones that are likely harmful but are still in use?

Is it really so radical to ask that companies test chemicals for safety before using them? Consumers buy them, wear them, live with them, even perhaps ingest them. Yet we’re expected to do so blindly, because the chemicals are a trade secret.

Let’s require better safety precautions for the classes of chemicals most likely to harm us.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix