Book Review: Body Toxic

Book Review: Body Toxic, How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens our Health and Well Being.

by Nena Baker. 2008. Nort Point Press, N.Y.277 pp.

Reviewed by William Olkowski, PHD.

Two areas of this book are of critical import for human and environmental health: 1) regulation policy and 2) body contamination updates for those of us unfamiliar with existing toxicological research.

Part 1: Our Toxic Substances CONTROL (TSCA) Act Does not Control Anything

The biggest issue raised by this book is the need to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA- pronounced ”Tos-ka”).  This has been known for many years but with the government run by business lobbyists who think regulations are always excessive no change will come soon unless more people get concerned and change the law.  This Act is just what the chemical industry wanted – what a laugh – there is little control in the toxic substances control act.  This is another case where we the people have lost control of our democracy.

This act has many aspects which demand change, most of which have been discussed for years.  For example in reports by the government watchdog agency GAO, the EPA itself, the National Academy of Sciences and the Office of Technology Assessment, none of which are rabid left wing liberals nor dreaded environmentalists, by the way.

Dose Response Testing and Other Mistakes

TSCA is based on only data submitted by the chemical producer, itself alone undermines the veracity of the Act.  From that data, dose response tests are extrapolated downward to estimate the lowest tolerable contamination level – the so called no effect level.  This assumes a linear response to the dose. This assumption, built into our regulatory systems, in effect says that there is a low dose below which no effects will occur.  This is a big false assumption, it turns out.  A better approach is “better safe than sorry” (see below).

The No Effect Level is an assumption that misses many low level effects.  Recent information using DNA detection systems shows that there is no dose without effect.  For example, with the worldwide contaminant herbicide atrazine, the no effect level for drinking water is set by the EPA at 3 ppb (3 parts per billion).  No tests actually specify this level, however, just the extrapolation.  But there is research to indicate that atrazine affects genes below this level. Since everyone in the US has this herbicide in their bodies it means that this is affecting everybody’s gene expression to some unknown degree.  And it has been so for decades.  Besides, long term effects are not tested per se.

The state of affairs in the US is that existing chemicals are considered safe until found guilty even if they are found in breast milk, in every human body, food chains around the world and even while toxicological evidence accumulates indicating dire health impacts.  If found below the tolerance level the assumption is that there is no threat to health.  Some toxicants, for example, exhibit non-linear responses. This sort of response was unknown and unexplored back in 1976.

More importantly all the 62,000 chemicals in existence when the 1976 TSCA act was passed were grandfathered in – given a blanket approval.  No hazard information nor health evaluation tests were required FOR THESE 62,000 CHEMICALS!!!  They were just approved.  This law was another legacy from the criminal-above-the-law Richard Nixon and his gang of GOP-CIA rejects and retreads.  Today more than 80,000 chemicals are registered with EPA.  These old 62,000 chemicals without hazard data now constitute 99% (by volume) of the chemicals used today. Unbelievable?!!!  Poisons are tolerable, right?  Note that combinations of poisons are not tested, but combinations of pesticide is the common situation in humans and the environment.

Redesign The US: Start with TSCA

Further, the EPA charged with administering this act cannot restrict a chemical unless the benefits of so doing are not more costly to business and society than the costs of pulling the chemical.  This means that if the chemical producer says it will cost too much, say $10 million to pull the chemical, and the savings are less, then nothing is done.  This occurs even when less toxic alternatives are available.  While the cancer estimates or other health impact costs are lower than the costs of pulling, there is no change.  Placing too low a cost estimate on tolerable cancer rates is what it turns out to be the critical factor.  How much should your cancer cost to treat?  Everything you have, right?

Since TSCA passed only really excessive bad actors have been pulled: PCBs, asbestos, dioxin, arguably the most toxic substance produced by humans, hexavalent chromium which should never have been registered in the first place and the ozone eating CFCs (chlorofluorcarbon refrigerants).  Finding out that the world is contaminated with a particular chemical and then acting is not logical as a regulatory process.  Regulation should prevent problems.  This means we need a new Toxic Substances Prevention and Control Act (TSPC). Toss TSCA, follow the example of Europe.

There’s worse.  Registrants are required to provide results of hazardous testing when they apply for registration.  No other tests are run by government during this time to validate or challenge these results.  That’s like the farmer asking the fox to prove he will not eat the chicken he has in his mouth.

For example, TSCA requires that chemical manufacturers report any problems with their products.  Great, the fox is going to tell the farmer that he is about to eat the chicken.  Does this sound like regulation or stimulation to lie?   When years later somebody discovers a big problem, like DDT and PCBs, it takes years of hearings to get rid of the stuff, and these are still in our bodies even though they are banned.  What is the industry response? “Wow, we didn’t know it was a carcinogen”.  And then the reported the chemical identity remains a confidential business secret.  The public be dammed.

Better Safe Than Sorry – A Superior Alternative in Effect in Europe

In contrast to our OBSOLETE TOSCA, the European Union has instituted a program called REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical Substances.  This far ranging and progressive change augers for innovations that will put the European Chemical Industry far ahead of its backward US competitors.  What the BOTTOM LINE primitives in the community who only call for lifting regulations don’t know, is that innovation is what is needed if we are ever going to come out of this toxic policy fog while also maintaining economic viability.  Few people know or understand these problems and it takes too much time and effort to educate oneself so, its business as usual.  One by one various toxicants rise up as health threats and a big fight between EPA, the chemical company responsible, and the public ensues, largely through the work of many non-profit environmental groups, and finally begrudging congressional action.  The projects takes years- to decades even career times so one has to persist for the years it takes to finally get some change.  Corporations are potentially immortal not like us who suffer death and disease, and they live forever and have the money for the lawyers.

If everybody in a community has to abide by the same regulations                               the playing field is leveled and innovations can be stimulated.  For examples of least toxic type products see the annual issue of the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Practitioner, a publication we founded decades ago.  Each year over 200 companies are quizzed for their least toxic products according to the different pests they work against.  And least toxic innovations are what is needed to keep the pest control industry functioning into the future.

But maybe the chemical industry should just die.  After all, who needs most of their stuff, the PCB’s, the DDTs, the Teflon coated pots, plastic bags, the smelly stuff on popcorn bags that migrates into your body and stays there forever, the house dust that we breathe and eat that never decomposes, and the rest?  There is no doubt that chemical pesticides are overused whether you look in agriculture, urban, or medical categories. Certainly implementing real Integrated Pest Management programs rigorously could help reduce unnecessary use of the existing materials, but that has not been adequately embraced by voluntary efforts. The more they sell the more money they make.

In this case making the law specifying that any registrant for a chemical must show that it is harmless before registration can be granted would eliminate the kinds of problems that TSCA misses.  And this new European Law includes all the already existing chemicals.  This is in contrast to our 30 plus year old TSCA that tolerates a great number of possible threats to health for decades.

When the act was passed DDT was the biggest problem.  If DDT did not help win WWII by reducing mortality and morbidity from infections diseases maybe it would have not been so difficult to get it banned.  Even though DDT was found as a world wide contaminant in 1949 and banned in 1972, it and its metabolites still contaminate world food chains including virtually universal human body contamination.  And notice the decades between when it first was known as a worldwide contaminant and when it was banned.  It took decades and long hours of hearings to get it acknowledged as a BIG problem.  Approaching regulation one chemical at a time after it threatens our health is not effective regulation.

Did You Know That:

The chemical industry is the largest user of fossil fuels.  It uses 7% of US petroleum products and 12% ofUSnatural gas?

In 2004 the US Chemical Industry produced more than 138 billion pounds of seven bulk chemicals: ethylene, propylene, butylenes, benzene, toluene, xylenes and methane.  These are the starting chemicals for thousands of products.  That’s a lot of plastics.  And there was good life before plastics.

Today everyone on the planet including newborns carries persistent organic pollutants in their bodies.  Some samples indicate up to 200 substances.  One sample from a series of umbilical tissues indicates over 100 chemicals are found in the bodies of newborns.  Can you connect the dots?

The UN has a program to ban some of the so-called “dirty dozen”, mostly organochlorines, including DDT, PCBs, aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, and hexachlorobenzene, dioxins, and furans.  If you want to make something toxic and long lasting just use chlorine somehow in its fabrication – that’s a chemists advice to me years ago.

A chemical plant blew up in India in 1984 which produced the raw material for various “cides”, called methyl isocyanate, releasing poison into the air, killing 3,000 people and seriously injuring 500,000 people.  We, in the US have 13,300 chemical plants scattered here and there.

Cancer is now the number 1 cause of death in the US.  Leading cancers include breast and prostate.

Pesticides are seldom found alone, but occur in combinations, none of which have been tested for effects.

Part 2: Examples of Serious Toxic Substances of Current Concern

This second aspect of importance in this paperback covers specific toxicants including:

1)  Atrazine: This herbicide affects sex development in frogs and amphibians by castration and feminization via aromatase induction, producing hermaphodism among other effects.  Atrazine is a worldwide contaminant which should have been banned decades ago.  60% of theUSpopulation is exposed daily via lawns and food, and its many metabolites were not considered when assessing exposure levels.  We don’t need lawns, for starters.  Atrazine was banned by Europeans in 2005.  76 million pounds are used each year in the US, mostly on corn, sorghum, and many other crops, plus lawns and golf courses.  Golf is the most toxic recreational activity, it turns out.

2)  Phthalates (“thal-ates): This is a family of plasticizers linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity.  The 27 countries ofEuropebanned dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) from personal care products in 2004.  Our FDA, responsible for the safety of cosmetic products (over 22,500 products) has taken no action on the big three phthalates, including the widely used diethyl phthalate (DEP) in addition to DBP and DEHP.  The beauty industry includes toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, hair color, moisturizer, perfume, lipstick, nail polish, and eye and face makeup – products used up to 20-25 times per day by average adults.  And baby care products are particularly bad with young people showing high levels of the 6 or so major phthalates in their bodies. Californialead the effort to remove these poisons from toys and other playthings.  Evidence has accumulated to show how these substances disrupt normal sex development, particularly in males, and both sexes in utero, at levels 100 times lower than the so called safe level set by EPA.  Senator Feinstein lead the charge at the federal level with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.  Now we need new laws that encompass all toxic substances.  Phthalates will still be with us for many more years as they break down slowly.

3)  Lead in candy and lipsticks: A battle royal is on-going as watchdog agencies pressure the FDA to do something besides clap for industry self management.  The massive 60 $billion Beauty Industry has responded with voluntary programs and the usual resistance.  One would think that such an industry would welcome a clean bill of health via a good regulatory system.  No, its business as usual: we are making money and piss on the consumer.

4)  Polybrominated diethyl ethers (PBDEs): This is another familiar problem caused by fire retardants widely incorporated in TVs and other electronic devices including computers, mattresses, upholstered furniture, insulation, car trim, carpet pads and drapes.  They leak out and contaminate the air so are inhaled via house dust in our homes among other places.  Cloths dryer lint is a major source.  Levels are rising rapidly and build up in fatty tissues.  Infants get the worse via breast milk but also from ingestion of house dust.  House cats, which show high proportions of feline hyperthyroidism, are our canaries.  This disease is associated most strongly with indoor cats, showing 20 times the levels found in humans.  Cats and humans are the only mammals that have a high incidence of hyperthyroid disease.  Toxicity data on human PBDE exposures does not exist but animal studies show developmental effects including brain, thyroid, and liver at levels found in humans.  A gradual loss of 1-3% in IQ is correlated with geometrical increases in body burdens.  This could be why our political systems are so dysfunctional-besides being managed by industrial ethics and their money via political campaigns for ignorant politicians.  U.S. tissue samples for PBDEs are 10 times higher than those found inEurope.  These substances are similar to the banned PCBs showing neurological damage in animal experiments.  If risk equals exposure times toxicity, even a mild toxicant can have catastrophic effects if it, like PBDEs, are virtually found in everyone.  Besides viable alternatives are available.  So it’s a matter of being safe rather than sorry.

5) Bisphenol-A:  This is the starting substance for polycarbonate plastic used for reusable food and beverage containers and a epoxy resin that lines most food cans.  It is also found in baby bottles, bicycle helmets, eyeglass lenses, water cooler jugs, and bullet-resistant barriers, reusable food storage containers, bottle caps, water supply lines, electrical equipment, and adhesives.  This chemical mimics the female hormone estrogen, leaches from these resins into foods.  Nearly all of us have this poison in our bodies at levels within the range predicted to be biologically active.  Animal studies show associated body burden levels with increases in breast and prostate cancers, increases in urogenital abnormalities in male babies, declines in semen quality in adult men, early onset of puberty in girls, metabolic disorders including type 2 diabetes and obesity and ADHD. Canada banned it in 2008.  This chemical also shows an inverted dose response curve making the usual method of setting lowest no effect levels inadequate.  Animal studies show effects at 200 times lower than the regulatory no effect level.  Boiling water placed in polycarbonate containers leaches at 50 times greater rates than room temperature liquids.  Latest studies indicate the Bisphenol-A may cause similar effects to the banned DES which caused such terrible birth and developmental effects passed to children and grandchildren before being banned.  These effects include endometriosis and uterine fibroids which are the leading causes of the 600,000 hysterectomies preformed in the US each year, and other effects including mental retardation, miscarriage, and congenital defects.  It has also been shown at low does to affect epigenetic programming altering expression of more than 200 genes involved with how the brain gets wired, how cells multiple and how metabolism is regulated.  Switch back to glass.

6)  Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs, PFOAs): One of the biggest uses of these long lived materials is in making nonstick Teflon coated cookware.  These substances are also found in paper products including one of the most toxic – popcorn bags used in microwave popping.  That’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Read about how the major producer of teflon, DuPont, reacts to the information that these substances migrate into foods from coated pots and pans and treated papers.  They paid the fines and settled many class action suits to protect their $1 billion in sales (out of $27 billion).  Poor DuPont.

Final comments:  When I read such a book I conclude that we need to redesign our civilization, including the need to change our regulatory systems, and protect our political systems from business bias and corporate influences.  Neither will be easy.  Does money constitute the primary status symbol, or are there other ways to address social status?  Can businesses also serve their communities rather than just milk them for money?  Does this challenge our way of life?  Yes it does.  But does business as usual produce the highest good for most people?  I don’t think so.  Could that be a criteria to judge our products and behaviors?  How about reducing pain and suffering?  That’s a goal I am sure the religious right and us lefties could agree on.  Now I have great reservations about our country and its path in the world.  These chemical tragedies are only one of the symptoms of a declining civilization which I am sorry to see go this way.  Of course these tragedies are being exposed by watchdog groups and many people, but not enough, publically supported scientists.  Science, properly conducted, without political bias, is our best guide.  Forget prayer to illusory persons, including relying on corporate person-hoods that can’t be placed in jails.  That’s a good place to start, getting the hogs out of the water, first, as Jim Hightower says.  They wont come voluntarily, they need to be pushed out.  Voting for proposition 37 (labelling genetically modified food) in the 2012 election in CA could be a good start.

Some sources of further information and political action

Pesticide Action Network (PAN):

Environmental Working Group (EWG)


Tags: TSCA, Toxic Substances Control Act, atrazine, DDT, PCBs, Chemical Regulation, European Union, REACH, EPA, FDA, Perfluorinated Chemicals, PFCs,  PFOAs, Biphenol-A, dirty dozen, CFCs, chlorofluorcarbons, refrigerant


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