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Back from the newsgrave: formaldehyde, styrene, dogbites, and the Koch brothers

Posted by Charles II on June 14, 2011

Friday should be called the newsgrave, because that’s where all important stories are sent to be buried.

DemocracyNow did an especially good report today on the release of a report on the cancer causing potential of styrene and formaldehyde and their listing as carcinogens by the Dept. Health and Human Services, the possible connection between the delay of the release of that report and the resignation of David Koch (Koch Chemicals produces formaldehyde) from the board of the National Institutes of Health, the potential for the suppression of an even more important report from the EPA, and the tactics that industry uses to forestall the day of reckoning on the withdrawal of toxic chemicals from the environment.

Now, a quick preface. To have an excessive fear of chemicals is equivalent to industry recklessness in being ethically, morally, and logically indefensible. All “chemicals”–including water and oxygen–cause death if administered wrongly. “Natural” products like plutonium, and “organic” products such as as VX (nerve gas) can be incredibly dangerous. Even some “natural organic” materials include things like botulinum toxin and aflatoxin are far, far more dangerous than most synthetic chemicals. Furthermore, the decision to regulate or, more seriously, withdraw from the market a product can lead not only to financial losses for the producers, but to actual death. To give an example, polystyrene is used not only for plastic cups, but in a host of medical applications. While replacements can be found, simply the process of changeover to a new material can lead to unpredictable effects, and those can include death. Even the simple increase in price of a material with price someone out of the current medical system, leading to injury or death, and that person is disproportionately likely to be poor. For that matter, the substitutes themselves will have their own health risks. And so we have to look at: what are exposures to all chemicals (even “natural” and “organic” ones)? Are there differential responses depending on age or other factors? How do we weigh risks and benefits? If we discover a health risk from a component of manufacturing, what are our alternatives? How do we properly price risk into the marketplace?

It’s important to absorb these facts in order to understand why and how styrene and formaldehyde need to be cut back drastically. If one doesn’t understand these points fully, then one will be susceptible to the Scylla of being persuaded by industry deceptions or the Charybdis of thinking we should ban these chemicals entirely. As the representative of the NRDC pointed out on DemocracyNow, the industry has four dogs with which to counter critics:

  • My dog doesn’t bite. (the chemical is safe)
  • OK, my dog does bite, but he didn’t bite you. (only factory workers, not the public is exposed).
  • OK, my dog did bite you, but he didn’t hurt you. (the public is exposed, but at safe limits)
  • Well, OK, my dog did bite you and he hurt you, but Hoocoodanode? (we aren’t paying for your suffering)
  • More below the fold

    I think the answers are clear.

    On exposures and differential responses, we need to have a much, much stronger research and regulatory system in place. We need to replace whole animal screening processes, which are slow and sometimes inapplicable, with screening processes on cultured cells. We need to reserve whole animal testing for the major chemical products and for therapeutics, as well as for cases in which a health effect is suspected. We also need to simply cut back on the use of synthetic materials and find renewable alternatives.

    On weighing risk and benefit, we need to remove pressures from advocacy groups (especially industry) from the process. Public finance of political campaigns seems like the only way to reduce corporate influence on the political process to healthy levels. But we need industry input into the process, because they are the only ones who understand the full implications of changes to manufacturing. So, we need joint academic-industry-environmental working groups to come up with assessments. This is impossible in today’s hyperpolitical atmosphere, but would be feasible if all sides felt that any final decision-making would be fair. Industry has to feel that it will not be penalized for developing new products.

    On pricing risk. A single payer health system relieves chemical manufacturers from the single most important motivating factor in lawsuits: recovering for medical bills. We need to compensate manufacturers when materials are withdrawn from the marketplace. We might also consider paying manufacturers to develop methods of recycling, so that even if their old business (production) is gradually closing down, they aren’t losing income, because they have a new business (recycling).

    Finally, we have to accept that, while there is a price to be paid for progress, it may be less than the price to be paid for doing nothing. This is just as true for development of new chemicals as well as for the remediation of our wounded environment. We need–more than laws or regulations– wisdom in choosing.

    One Response to “Back from the newsgrave: formaldehyde, styrene, dogbites, and the Koch brothers”

    1. One of the adverse (and I believe intended) effects of the Koch brothers’ spending much of their combined $44 billion on this issue is to make it seem as if there are only two ways of being: unrestricted chemical use and abuse, or Stone Age living conditions. As you point out, there is a Grand Canyon of options in between those two extremes.

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