Few people know that most chemicals used in everyday products have never been thoroughly tested for their long-term health effects and may never be. With more than 80,000 chemicals present worldwide, in everything from children's toys to furniture, and more than 1000 new chemical compounds introduced each year, individually assessing chemicals is no longer feasible.
In short, we need a new paradigm to guide the way chemicals are regulated.
Basic toxicology teaches that "the dose makes the poison" but what gets overlooked is that we are not just exposed to individual chemicals. The primordial soup we now spring from is contaminated with a multitude of manufactured chemicals that are foreign to our genes and evolutionary detoxification mechanisms.
Some manufactured chemicals have proven to be persistent and accumulative, such as DDT and dioxin, which forever swirl around in the air and water and end up in our food, clothing and shelter. Our homes are no longer safe havens and are among some of the most polluted places we'll find ourselves in.
Studies which measure chemicals in our blood, fat and breast milk reveal an alarming array of chemicals at unprecedented levels, with children having higher levels than their grandparents in some instances. Despite bland reassurances that these levels are only "small", things can only get worse if new chemicals are constantly introduced and older ones keep concentrating up the food chain.
Exposing children to chemicals can result in learning disabilities and behavioural disorders, asthma, autism, cancer, dysfunctional immune systems and reproductive disorders, the World Health Organisation says. Babies are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals from the moment of conception and are born with hundreds of synthetic chemicals in their small bodies.
It's a sobering thought that breast milk, the most precious source of nutrition and protection for the next generation, couldn't be sold if it were a product because of contamination with banned bio-accumulative chemicals.
Growing international concern over the health effects of exposure to chemicals, particularly in children, is galvanising global action on chemical pollution. Australia is still using the risk-management model espoused by the United States to regulate chemicals rather than the precautionary approach underpinning new European Union legislation, which will ultimately lead to the quick removal of dangerous chemicals in favour of safer and greener ones.
Taking a precautionary approach requires effective regulation and incentives for green chemistry, regular bio-monitoring and rapid removal of dangerous chemicals. At present questionable chemicals are treated as innocent until proven guilty, which, as we've seen with substances such as tobacco and asbestos, can take a long time, with a great deal of damage done in the meantime.
Against this backdrop, industry is poised to introduce even more novel chemicals into the environment via nanotechnology, genetic engineering and new polymers, which has health professionals and the broader community asking if Australia's fragmented regulatory system is up to the task of protecting us.
Recent incidents with imported toys and blankets with dangerously high levels of chemicals illustrate the difficulty of regulating in a global marketplace, which is made more complicated by the fact that Australian regulators have little, if any, regulatory control over chemical components in imported products.
One group of chemicals that clearly highlights the failings of government agencies to protect the health of its people and environment are the perfluorochemicals, a group of chemicals used in products such as non-stick cookware, stain- and grease-resistant treatments, building products and electronic processing equipment. Little is known about the health or environmental effects of perfluorochemicals, but we already know some can cause tumours and reproductive damage and are toxic to the immune system. Importantly, these chemicals do not break down or degrade.
Dubbed "poisons without passports", perfluorochemicals now travel the globe on air and water currents and become widespread throughout the environment, contaminating wildlife far from sources of production and use.
Levels of some perfluorochemicals have been doubling every five to eight years in polar bears, for instance.
These emissions join other toxic chemicals given off by consumer products and contaminating the dust and air in our homes, as well as the wastewater we flush away. Effluents released into rivers from municipal wastewater treatment plants are contaminated with many persistent toxic compounds originating from the products we use.
It's time regulators took the health and environmental threats of chemical pollution seriously. Rather than the current obsession with reducing the regulatory burden and improving efficiencies for the chemical industry, we need an entirely new focus, one where the protection of public health and the environment are the centrepiece of chemical regulation.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith is co-chair of the International POPs Elimination Network and senior adviser to the National Toxics Network. Jo Immig is coordinator of the National Toxics Network and author of The Toxic Playground and Safer Solutions.
Copyright © 2007 The Sydney Morning Herald