Friday, 29 June 2012 00:00
Over a period of time now measured in decades, I’ve tried to pay attention to what generates attention for some issues and problems, while other worthy causes languish. Over the last year, two issues have suddenly entered the public consciousness with unusual speed and depth, and both involve the chemical industry. When I first wrote about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to release natural gas and other energy resources for processing, it was still a strange and exotic subject to most readers. Now, most of us are at least a little familiar with concerns over the chemicals and the wastewater. And the earthquakes.
The other meteoric issue is still in ascent, but you will likely be hearing and reading much more about your couch, and whether or not it is hurting you and your family. All the furniture, really. And your cars, computers, television sets, carpets, floor tiles, clothing, wall paints and more. We don’t know the answers to some of the questions, and that’s a really big problem. We also don’t know who some of our most visible and influential politicians actually work for, and we aren’t going anywhere near fixing the first problem without figuring out that one.
Assembly Bill 9045 and its matching companion in the State Senate, Bill 6080, would, in two short sentences, phase out the use of the flame-retardant chemical called TDCPP (or “Tris”) in children’s products, such as toys and car seats. Tris was prohibited for use in children’s pajamas back when I was still wearing them, because it was found to mutate DNA in tests involving petri dishes and fleas. The World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the State of California all call it a health hazard or probable carcinogen.
What Tris actually does or doesn’t do is kind of beside the point. I don’t know the whole story, you don’t know, nobody knows, because we don’t require industry to comprehensively test chemicals before they put them in their products. Only one percent of the more than 100,000 chemicals used in American commercial products have been studied for any possible health consequences.
Starting in the 1930s, the class of chemicals known as PCBs were seen as a manufacturing miracle because they broke up the chemical reaction that causes flames, could be mixed into plastics and foam and didn’t break down. PCBs are now banned because of dangers to human endocrine and neurological systems. Because PCBs don’t break down, they’re in us, in the waste stream that is used as fertilizer, in our crops, everywhere. Tris is one of the chlorinated retardants that replaced PCBs, and it is also “persistent;” it shows up all over, leaching out of furniture into the dust on the floor where toddlers play with their toys. What it does once it is lodged into our fat cells and organs may not be clear, but it’s just a little piece of the largest science experiment ever conducted on this planet, and we’re all part of it. And our pets, too.
The legislation to prohibit the use of Tris in kiddie clothes and toys after August 1, 2014, passed the state Assembly unanimously on March 20. It passed through the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee unanimously on May 15. It was, for no apparent reason, further referred to the Senate Finance Committee. From there, legislation moves only at the beck, call and whim of the majority leader, and despite rallies, letters, editorials and more, State Senator Dean Skelos of Nassau County, the Majority Leader, did not call.
Maybe the legislation was dead on arrival anyway, and Senator Skelos was dragging it out so that the bill’s sponsor, a Republican representing a Democratic-leaning district, could score points. Trés Albany. There are a lot of possible explanations. One would be nice.
So the state Senate leadership refused to mildly inconvenience large corporations in an election year. Hardly worth mentioning anymore. Except that these particular inconvenienced manufacturers have been thoroughly discredited, thanks to an amazing four-part story that ran in the Chicago Tribune in May, called “Playing With Fire.”
For several years, a self-described coalition group has sent a traveling road show to legislative hearings around the country, complete with a medical expert describing the horrific maiming of burn victims, opposing any bans on Tris and related chemicals. The Tribune story broke down in exquisite detail that this “Citizens for Fire Safety Institute” and allied groups were sham fronts funded by three chemical manufacturers, that their intense lobbying efforts ($23.3 million spent in California alone on lobbying and campaign contributions in 2011) were replete with distorted research and even outright lies. Some scientists insist that these chemicals don’t even slow the spread of fires: “The fire just laughs at it,” said one expert.
The chemical industry broke a cardinal rule of dealing with public officials: They made them look and feel like dupes, in front of everybody. In the last month, legislators from 19 states signed a letter urging the American Chemistry Council to “expel these unethical manufacturers from your industry trade group.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ll be more impressed when states start pulling their licenses to lobby. Baseball pitchers get arrested for lying to politicians about steroids. The state Legislature has the power to have people arrested and hauled to the bar of the house to explain themselves, though it hasn’t happened, to my knowledge, for 99 years. I’m a traditional guy. Let’s bring back the old ways.
It isn’t like there aren’t alternatives to the use of this particular chemical. There are inorganic flame-retardants based on phosphorous, magnesium and ammonia that are much less toxic, but may be slightly more expensive to build into the manufacturing process. The Chemical Abstract Service has assigned identification numbers to over 50 million chemicals. When PCBs were banned, the industry had numerous variations ready in the back room. There may already be less toxic alternatives that actually degrade in our bodies over time. It’s all a giant trade secret, so we don’t know.
In fact, after the bad publicity of “Playing With Fire,” some retardant manufacturers have already offered to voluntarily phase out some products. That just made some of these legislators madder, because it made clear how much deceit was going on.
While the legislation will be back 2013, the chemical industry has already won, in a very large sense. They have legislatures and well-meaning citizen advocates squabbling and scrambling over legislation that bans one or two chemicals at a time, when the entire class of chlorinated retardants needs to come into play. If one or two are pulled, the chemicals that replace them will also be unstudied, and ten years from now there will be another shocking revelation, and it will all start again. The chemical industry is playing at a higher level than most public officials.
At almost the exact moment S.6080 was dying in the state Senate, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate were defeating an amendment that would have merely clarified the power of states to require labels on genetically modified food products. The vote to allow consumers to make informed choices was defeated 26 to 73.
This is how cowed our governments are by the chemical industry and its allies: Earlier this year, a similar proposal had bipartisan and wide popular support in the Vermont legislature, arguably the most independent-minded state in the country. The Monsanto Company, which likes to call itself an agricultural firm but which is actually a chemical industry behemoth (it was Monsanto that pioneered mass production of PCBs), threatened to sue and shook its finger and the entire State of Vermont backed down. The whole thing stopped dead.
Meanwhile in Europe, where governments are still afraid of political consequences if their constituents figure out too much, every country requires this kind of labeling. Many Europeans have seen plenty and they are taught, as Americans once were, to ask questions. In 2009, France’s high court found Monsanto guilty of false advertising for claiming that Roundup, the popular weed killer, is biodegradable and leaves "the soil clean." In March, the French government placed a temporary ban on the most common strain of Monsanto’s genetically-modified corn “to protect the environment.” The seeds of these genetically modified crops spread and contaminate crops grown by nearby farmers who don’t want to use the product and who want to produce chemical and hormone-free crops and dairy. Monsanto has actually sued some small farmers for patent infringement when a neighbor’s GM seed blows into their fields.
Because Europeans have higher standards for flame-resistant chemicals that can be used in consumer products, the computer I’m writing this on can’t be sold in Europe. They get a different version with a different set of ingredients in the plastics.
REACH is the European Community’s regulation on chemical substances, adopted in 2007 and still being implemented in stages. It places greater responsibility on industry to manage risks from chemicals and to provide basic safety information. It requires in-depth evaluation of suspicious chemicals, and requires the substitution over time of the most dangerous chemicals when suitable alternatives are available.
Don’t Americans deserve at least this level of safety and common sense management of these substances? Isn’t this a form of national security?
And will any of our Nassau County state senators even bother to ask Senator Skelos about what happened?
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org