In Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants, Carl F. Cranor documents the health threats posed by toxic hazards in commercial products such as cosmetics and cookware. Cranor argues that these chemical compounds should be subject to pre-market testing, as is the case with pharmaceuticals and pesticides, rather than presumed safe until harm is done. Below, Cranor presents the case for legal reform and outlines some of the additional channels of toxic contamination that have been documented since the initial publication of Legally Poisoned, which is new in paperback this month.
Recent scientific findings on the developmental origins of disease pose major problems for laws that currently seek to protect the public from toxic substances. Existing laws permit our children and us to be legally contaminated with untested substances that may be toxic. We are “legally poisoned.”
Since the hardcover publication of Legally Poisoned in 2011, a number of studies have reinforced its concerns. New York University researchers found that the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA)—previously known to cause hormone abnormalities, asthma, behavioral problems and obesity—is linked to heart disease in children. BPA is used to line food and beverage cans to prevent corrosion and because of its pervasiveness contaminates our food supply. More than ninety percent of the public is contaminated by BPA.
Brazilian scientists found that infants whose mothers were exposed to the commonly used pesticide permethrin during pregnancy were up to seven times more likely to have leukemia. Even children whose mothers were exposed three months before conception were twice as likely to develop infant leukemia as those whose mothers reported no exposure.
Scientists at UC Berkeley have found that children’s exposures to brominated flame-retardants (PBDEs) in the womb or early childhood can lead to cognitive declines: poorer attention and motor skills and lower IQ scores. Other researchers have found that brominated flame-retardants reduce the male hormone testosterone in men. Children have higher concentrations of these substances than adults, but virtually all citizens are contaminated. Brominated flame-retardants are in carpets, upholstery, curtains, plastics, furniture and house dust, but once released into the environment return to contaminate various foods.
These studies and others on the developmental origins of disease are revealing how diseases and dysfunctions can be predisposed or triggered by toxicants, diet, or even infections in utero or in early life. Children are especially susceptible to diseases and dysfunctions during development and much more sensitive to toxic exposures than adults at the same concentrations. Major catastrophes resulting from in utero exposures to Thalidomide, methylmercury, and diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the 1960s and 1970s shattered the view of the womb as a protective shelter in which children could develop safely before they began facing some of the risks and hazards of the external world into which they would soon be born. Subsequently, researchers have found that early life exposure to PCBs, lead, radiation, DDT, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, synthetic estrogens, some pesticides, some pharmaceuticals and other substances can cause less dramatic diseases or dysfunctions, many affecting a person for a lifetime.
The Centers for Disease Control has now also reliably identified more than 300 substances that currently contaminate citizens. Humans are exquisitely permeable to contamination; all but the very largest macromolecules will enter our bodies and be metabolically processed for good or ill. While we have considerable confidence that when we ingest a prescribed pharmaceutical it will not harm us because it has been tested for toxicity before being sold, we cannot have the same confidence for the vast majority of industrial chemicals that are subject to so-called “post-market laws.” Given what we now know, existing laws simply cannot protect our children or the rest of us.
These laws permit substances to enter commerce without any routinely required toxicity testing before we are exposed. They assume that invisible, undetectable, silent intruders can be adequately controlled by mechanisms similar to other laws: wait for a violation or evidence of harm to occur and then legally address it. Because of this mistaken assumption, all of us have become involuntary haphazard experimental subjects for industrial chemical products.
Post-market laws also result in considerable toxic ignorance, impose great burdens on public health agencies when they seek to protect us, lead to substantial delays to reduce or remove their adverse effects, and treat citizens unjustly. Well known toxicants have been languishing for years, unaddressed by public health agencies working under post-market laws: 25+ years for dioxin, a known carcinogen; 20+ years for trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen and contributor to Parkinson’s disease; 13+ years for perchlorate, a groundwater contaminant that can contribute to neurological disorders, 11 years for formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, along with dozens of substances not even in the dockets.
Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants, based on the new science of the developmental origins of disease, argues that to better protect us and our children the legal system must be changed to require routine pre-market toxicity testing of all humanly created chemicals to which the public or workforce will have considerable exposure. Current law permits citizens to be contaminated and put at risk with substances of unknown toxicity, but with appropriate changes risks can be greatly diminished. This will reduce toxicant caused diseases, lessen health care costs, and lead to a more just society.