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The Great American 'Toxic Chemical' Experiment

Lax regulation of toxic chemicals turns us all into human guinea pigs.

Jill Richardson

 by OtherWords

There are more than 1,000 chemicals known to be toxic to the brains of animals in lab experiments. Yet we only know of 214 for humans, and just 12 for developing fetuses and infants, a recent study revealed.Human Guinea Pigs

Why are these numbers so far apart? Is it because lab animals’ brains are more feeble and susceptible to chemicals than ours?

No. It’s because we can conduct experiments by feeding mercury, lead, and arsenic to rats to find out what happens to their brains. It’s unethical to do so in humans.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re doing — just not in a lab.

Without the capability to conduct a lab experiment on humans, we’ve got a few ways to find out exactly which chemicals are bad for our brains.

Typically, most of us are exposed to low levels of a wide variety of the chemicals in our lives — from paint, carpet, food, food containers, air, water, and more. If, after 60 years, you get sick, it’s hard to say what caused it.

Sometimes the harm can be much more subtle, like the loss of a few IQ points in a child who was exposed to a chemical before birth.

The exception is usually when a group of people is exposed day after day to high doses of a chemical on the job. When they all become acutely ill, it’s obvious there’s a problem. The cause is fairly easy to track down.

This method works for adults — resulting in the discovery of 214 neurotoxicants in humans — but not in developing fetuses and infants.

To find the dozen chemicals that harm the youngest brains, scientists compare exposure levels among a group of babies while still in the womb and then track their growth in their early years. Only by comparing them to one another, scientists can detect which chemicals cause problems.

For example, one study tested pregnant mothers for levels of a pesticide, chlorpyrifos, and then followed their children for many years. They linked chlorpyrifos exposure to reduced head circumference at birth and neurobehavioral problems that lasted at least seven years.

These studies recognize that we’re all being used as human guinea pigs.

Back to my first point: We know darn well that over 1,000 chemicals harm the brains of animals — and animals’ bodies are not all that different from ours. About half of the chemicals on this list are chemicals that are in our industrial solvents, pesticides, flame retardants, and other common products.

What’s our current approach? Just keep using them. Move along, everyone, until scientists can prove beyond a doubt that a specific chemical made a specific person sick.

Trying to steer clear of dangerous chemicals can drive you crazy. Just try to discover which products in your life contain chemicals that are toxic to you or your kids, and how you can find non-toxic replacements for them. It’s hard not to grow exasperated and give up.

And as a society, we should theoretically have more control over the process of identifying and banning toxic chemicals. But the federal law that regulates them, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, has no teeth.

Corporations don’t even have to test their products for toxicity before putting them on the market. And the government has a very limited ability to prevent toxic chemicals from being sold. Why?

Why do we prioritize a corporation’s right to make money over the right of our citizens to be healthy?

People, particularly children and the unborn, shouldn’t be guinea pigs.

Corporations should be required to prove their products’ safety before they are allowed to sell them.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at UW-Madison, where she studies natural resources and the environment.

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