A Tough New Chemical Law

  • Lena Perenius and Franco Bisegna are with CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Liam Moriarty)

There are tens of thousands of
chemical compounds on the market
these days. And, for the most part,
unless regulators can prove a chemical
is harmful, it stays there. Now, Europe
has turned that way of doing things
on its head, and the US is showing
signs of moving in that direction, too.
Liam Moriarty has this report:


There are tens of thousands of
chemical compounds on the market
these days. And, for the most part,
unless regulators can prove a chemical
is harmful, it stays there. Now, Europe
has turned that way of doing things
on its head, and the US is showing
signs of moving in that direction, too.
Liam Moriarty has this report:

(sounds of a street)

Brussels, Belgium is sort of like the Washington, DC of Europe. It’s here – in the seat of the European Union – that the 27 nations that make up the EU hash out their common policies.

I’m sitting in the office of Bjorn Hansen. He keeps an eye on chemicals for the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment. To give me an idea of how ubiquitous chemicals are in our everyday lives, Hansen points around his office.

“Just us sitting here, you are probably exposed to chemicals, which come from the office furniture, which have been used to color the textile, which has been used to create the foam, the glue under the carpet that we’re sitting – you name it, you’re exposed.”

The big question is whether all this exposure is harming our health or the environment. The answer?

“We, by far, do not know what chemicals are out there, what the effects of those chemicals are, and what the risks associated with those chemicals.”

In the European Union, that uncertainty led to a new law known by its acronym, REACH. That’s R-E-A-C-H. REACH requires that tens of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products in the EU be studied and registered. If a substance cannot be safely used, manufacturers will have to find a substitute, or stop using it. REACH has, at its core, a radical shift: it’s no longer up to the government to prove a chemical is unsafe.

“The burden of proof is on industry to demonstrate safety. And by demonstrating the safety that they think, they also take liability and responsibility for that safety.”

Even for industries accustomed to tougher European regulations, REACH was alarming.

“There were very, quite violent opposition in the beginning.”

Lena Perenius is with CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council.

“In the EU, we already had a very comprehensive set of regulations for ensuring safe use of chemicals. And the industry saw that this was putting an unreasonable burden on the companies.”

Corporations may not have liked it, but the measure had strong public support. After several contentious rounds of negotiations, Perenius says the industry feels it got key concessions that’ll make the far-reaching law workable. Now, she says, the industry has come to see the up-side of REACH.

“Now, when we have the responsibility, that gives us a little bit of freedom to demonstrate, in the way we believe is appropriate, how a substance can be used safely.”

Here in the US, there are signs of political momentum building around taking a more REACH-like approach to regulating the chemicals in everyday products. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg recently said he’d introduce a bill that would shift the burden of proof for safety onto chemical manufacturers.

“Instead of waiting for a chemical to hurt somebody, it will require companies to prove their products are safe before they end up in the store, in our homes, and in our being.”

Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson recently told a Senate committee that – out of an estimated 80,000 chemicals in use – existing law has allowed the EPA to ban only 5, and to study just 200.

“Though many of these chemicals likely pose little or no risk, the story is clear – we’ve only been able to effectively regulate a handful of chemicals, and we know very little about the rest.”

More than a dozen states from Maine to California have already moved to toughen safety standards for chemicals. Even the American Chemistry Council has agreed to support more vigorous regulations to assure consumers that the chemicals in the products they use are safe.

As always, the devil is in the details. But the coming reform is shaping up to look a lot like what Europe is already putting in place.

For The Environment Report, I’m Liam Moriarty.

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Trash Burning Can Threaten Human Health

  • Burning trash smells bad and it can create the conditions necessary to produce dioxin. If livestock are exposed to that dioxin, it can get into the meat and milk we consume, creating health risks. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance)

For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the curb. But not everyone can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… that choice could be affecting your health:


For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the
curb, but not everyone can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn
their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports… that choice could be affecting your health:

(Sound of garbage trucks)

It’s not been that long ago that people everywhere but in the largest cities
burned their trash in a barrel or pit in the backyard. That’s not as often
the case these days. Garbage trucks make their appointed rounds in
cities, small towns, and in some rural areas, but they don’t pick up
Everywhere, or if they do offer service, it’s much more expensive
because the pick-up is so far out in the country.

Roger Booth lives in a rural area in southwestern Illinois. He says
garbage pick-up is not an option for him.

“Well, we burn it and then bury the ashes and things. We don’t have a
good way to dispose of it any other method. The cost of having pick up
arranged is prohibitive.”

He burns his garbage in the backyard. Booth separates bottles and tin
cans from the rest of the garbage so that he doesn’t end up with broken
glass and rusty cans scattered around.

A lot of people don’t do that much. They burn everything in a barrel and
then dump the ashes and scrap in a gully… or just burn everything in a
gully or ditch. Booth says that’s the way most folks take care of the
garbage in the area. No one talks about the smoke or fumes put off by
the burning.

“I haven’t ever thought much about that. So, I don’t suppose that I have
any real concerns at this moment. I don’t think I’m doing anything
different than most people.”

And that’s what many people who burn their garbage say.

A survey conducted by the Zenith Research Group found that people in
areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota who didn’t have regular garbage
collection believe burning is a viable option to get rid of their household
and yard waste. Nearly 45-percent of them indicated it was
“convenient,” which the researchers interpreted to mean that even if
garbage pick-up were available, the residents might find more convenient
to keep burning their garbage.

While some cities and more densely populated areas have restricted
backyard burning… state governments in all but a handful of states in
New England and the state of California have been reluctant to put a lot
of restrictions on burning barrels.

But backyard burning can be more than just a stinky nuisance. Burning
garbage can bring together all the conditions necessary to produce
dioxin. Dioxin is a catch-all term that includes several toxic compounds.
The extent of their impact on human health is not completely know, but
they’re considered to be very dangerous to human health in the tiniest

Since most of the backyard burning is done in rural areas, livestock are
exposed to dioxin and it gets into the meat and milk that we consume.

John Giesy is with the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at
Michigan State University. He says as people burn garbage, the dioxins
are emitted in the fumes and smoke…

“So, when they fall out onto the ground or onto the grass, then animals
eat those plants and it becomes part of their diet, and ultimately it’s
accumulated into the animal and it’s stored as fat. Now, particularly with
dairy cattle, one of the concerns about being exposed to dioxins is that
then when they’re producing milk, milk has fat it in, it has butter fat in it,
and the dioxins go along with that.”

So, every time we drink milk, snack on cheese, or eat a hamburger, we
risk getting a small dose of dioxin. Beyond that, vegetables from a
farmer’s garden, if not properly washed, could be coated with dioxins,
and even a miniscule amount of dioxin is risky.

John Giesy says chemical manufacturing plants and other sources of
man-made dioxin have been cleaned up. Now, backyard burning is the
biggest source of dioxins produced by humans.

“So, now as we continue to strive to reduce the amount of dioxins in the
environment and in our food, this is one place where we can make an

“That’s the concern. That’s the concern, is that it’s the largest remaining
source of produced dioxin.”

Dan Hopkins is with the Environmental Protection Agency. He says,
collectively, backyard burning produces 50 times the amount of dioxin as
all the large and medium sized incinerators across the nation combined.
That’s because the incinerators burn hot enough to destroy dioxins and
have pollution control devices to limit emissions. Backyard burning
doesn’t get nearly that hot and the smoke and fumes spread unchecked.

The EPA wants communities to take the problem of backyard burning
seriously. It wants state and local governments to do more to make
people aware that backyard burning is contaminating our food and
encourage them to find other ways to get rid of their garbage.

“(It) probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but by exchanging
successful efforts that other communities have had, we should be able to
help communities fashion approaches that have a high probability of

But public education efforts are expensive, and often they don’t reach the
people who most need to hear them. The EPA is not optimistic that it
will see everyone stop burning their garbage. It’s not even a goal. The
agency is just hoping enough people will find other ways to get rid of
their trash that the overall dioxin level in food is reduced.

For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

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Fire Retardant Chemicals Ring Alarm Bells

  • Meredith Buhalis and her daughter Zoe. Meredith's breast milk was tested for PBDEs as part of a study by the Environmental Working Group. (Photo by Meredith Buhalis)

Flame retardant chemicals help make our lives safer.
The chemicals are designed to keep plastics and foam from
catching on fire, but the flame retardants are worrying some
scientists because these chemicals are turning up in people’s
bodies, sometimes at alarmingly high rates. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:


Flame retardant chemicals help make our lives safer. The chemicals are designed
to keep plastics and foam from catching on fire. But the flame retardants are
beginning to worry some scientists because these chemicals are turning up in
peoples’ bodies. Sometimes at alarmingly high rates. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:

If you take a look around your house, you can find a lot of things that have
flame retardant chemicals in them. They’re in your television set, the cushions
in your couch, and the padding underneath your carpet. They’re known as poly-bromiated-diphenyl
ethers, or PBDEs. And they’re either mixed in or sprayed on plastics and foam to keep a fire
from spreading.

Five years ago a Swedish study found these chemicals were accumulating in women’s breast
milk. Studies in the U.S. followed, and researchers also found PBDEs in Americans, but at
even higher levels. In fact, Americans have some of the highest levels ever measured. And
over time, the levels have been going up.

(sound of baby)

Meredith Buhalis was one of those people measured in a study by an envrionmental organization
called the Environmental Working Group. Buhalis and 20 other first time moms sent in samples
of their breast milk. When the samples were tested, all of them had some level of PBDEs in
them. Buhalis says when she read the results she didn’t know what to think.

“I guess I kind of read the results and the study was like, ‘Oh, well that sort of sucks.’
I wish I knew more about what that meant. ‘Cause I don’t. You know, they don’t know what
that means.”

Scientists don’t know how or if the chemicals affect human health. And some scientists
think the government and the chemical companies aren’t doing enough to look into PBDEs.

(sound of typing)

In his office at the University of Texas in Dallas, Dr. Arnold Schecter is working on an
article about the flame retardants. He’s been studying toxic chemicals for more than thirty
years. He and some of his colleagues think PBDEs are a lot like another type of chemical…

“It reminds us of PCBs. PCBs structurally are similar to the PBDEs. So there is the worry,
or the concern, that they may have many, if not all, the toxic effect that PCBs have on humans.”

So far the data on PCBs strongly suggest that the chemicals can cause cancer in humans as
well as other human health effects such as damage to the nervous and immune systems. The
companies that manufacture the flame retardants say it’s not fair to compare PBDEs with
PCBs. They say the chemicals are vastly different.

But no one really knows whether the chemicals are similar in the way they affect human
health. That’s because no one’s studied the human health effects of PBDEs.

“Unfortunately, there are no published human health studies and I don’t believe any have
been funded by the federal government to date. Nor by industry, nor by any foundations,
which is a bit different than the situation with PCBs and dioxins years ago when many
studies were being funded.”

Some animal studies suggest that the chemicals can permanently disrupt the hormone and
nervous systems, cause reproductive and developmental damage, and cause cancer. All that
makes scientists such as Dr. Schecter especially concerned about the most vulnerable
population – developing babies.

Because of the concerns, the biggest manufacturer of these chemicals in the U.S. has agreed
to stop making two of the PBDE formulations that were found to accumulate in people. Great
Lakes Chemical says production will stop by the end of this year. The chemicals will be
replaced with another type of brominated flame retardant.

The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum is a trade group that represents companies
that make the flame retardants. Peter O’Toole is the group’s U.S. Director. He says so
far the amount of chemicals found in people doesn’t concern the companies, but the upward
trend does.

“And again, it wasn’t of alarming numbers, but the manufacturer was concerned that these
numbers were going up nonetheless. And they thought it was prudent, and they talked to the
EPA and EPA thought it was prudent if there was some sort of mutual phase out of those materials.”

Dr. Schecter says he commends the company for taking this step. But he says even though these
two formulations will be phased out, the flame retardants are already in our environment now.
He says his research has found high levels of PBDEs by wiping the plastic casing on television
sets, and in the dust found in homes. He says what’s in our homes now isn’t going to vanish,
so we need to figure out how the chemicals get into us, so we can avoid potential health problems.

For its part, the U.S. Envrionmental Protection Agency says large-scale human health studies
take a long time to develop. An agency spokesperson says the EPA first needs to learn how a
person becomes highly exposed. After that, they say researchers will be able to ask the question,
“for the highly exposed people, are there any health effects?”

(sound of baby)

That leaves people such as Meredith Buhalis, with a lot more questions than answers.

“We are thinking of having another baby, and I think I would really like to know more about
PBDEs. I think about it when I think about that.” (to her daughter) “Oh thank you. Hi, baby.
Hi, Zoe.”

The Federal government doesn’t plan to regulate the chemicals anytime soon. But some states
aren’t waiting for more studies. A handful of states have placed restrictions on certain
types of PBDEs. And in other states, legislation is pending.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

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