Synopsis: The average American is exposed to more than 100 potentially toxic synthetic chemicals every day, and there is little oversight of their safety. A noted expert discusses the vast amount that we don’t know about these chemicals, how the US might regulate them better, and how tougher regulation in other countries could help keep Americans safer.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Ken Geiser, Emeritus Professor of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and author, Chemicals Without Harm: Policies for a Sustainable World.

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Chemicals in Products

Nancy Benson: Synthetic chemicals are present in almost every man-made item around us. Our clothing, household products, electronics, building materials, office supplies, cosmetics, and even our kids’ toys contain chemicals that are toxic or whose safety is unknown. The average American is exposed to more than 100 of them every day.

Ken Geiser: There are chemicals basically in a lot of the products that show up in our commercial life, products to make our lives good and make our work places productive. Many of them today are made from synthetic chemicals; not all of those are dangerous, but there are additives and chemicals that are used in the production of those products which are of concern.

Benson: That’s Ken Geiser, Emeritus Professor of Work Environment at the University Of Massachusetts at Lowell and author of the book, Chemicals Without Harm: Policies for a Sustainable World.

Geiser: They are chemicals that are really dangerous. Sometimes those chemicals are in such low amounts that the exposure is really really very modest and the danger isn’t that extreme. But in other cases those chemicals introduced into a house or building may off gas or fall off the product, show up in the dust in the house and can be a problem, for instance, children that crawl around on the floor or elderly people who may have health compromised by disease or whatever. So, it’s not just the danger of the chemical itself, it’s also how we’re exposed to it.

Benson: But if those chemicals are dangerous to us, why are they available? Geiser says many people assume that the government doesn’t let dangerous chemicals onto the market, but that’s not true.

Geiser: The way our market works, products come onto the market. The government does not test those products. They may be tested by a product manufactures, but those test results are often proprietary. We don’t know what they are. We often don’t even know what the chemicals are in products, so the government doesn’t have the capacity or the authority to really test hundreds and hundreds of chemicals.

Benson: Geiser says the government’s done a better job policing air and water pollution. Laws passed in the 1970’s have stood the test of time. But when it comes to chemicals in our products, industry polices itself.

Geiser: We are a country that believes in a free market. That’s a basic tenet of our society and that’s worked very well for us in many cases.  We produce a huge amount of innovative products and services. With regards to hazardous products, such as products that contain dangerous chemicals, there’s not the same drive for seeking safer substitutes or safer chemicals if in fact a lot of that is not known. One of the inhibitors to moving toward an effective market is the fact that the information simply is not out there. Consumers have no way of judging products in terms of their safety. Often product manufacturers don’t even know what’s in the components they use to assemble products, so there’s a lot of information that’s missing that would otherwise make the market more effective at producing a safer outcome.

Benson: So it’s possible that toymakers may have no idea if the plastics they buy from another company contain toxics. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency often has no idea either. About 15 years ago, the EPA tried to find all the information that was available on all chemicals selling more than a million pounds a year.

Geiser: Of the 87,000 chemicals that are in production in the United States, the EPA focused on some 2,300 of them that are the large volume chemicals, and ran a study to determine how much we actually know about those. It was revealing that only about six percent had full testing done, that is, 94% had less than full testing and of that number, 43% had no testing on those chemicals.

Benson: Geiser says taking a European approach would likely keep us safer. It’s based on what’s called “the precautionary principle.”

Geiser: Precautionary principle basically says that if there is some evidence of harm, then it’s important to act to prevent the actual harm. Whereas, in the U.S. we have the policy that, wait for there to be very solid evidence of harm that is really injury or death before we will actually act. So it’s a much more precautious principle in Europe.

Benson: Some people put it this way — Europeans don’t let a new chemical into the market unless it’s proven safe first. Imported products have to follow that rule as well. But if the product is also sold in the United States, it could help make us safer.

Geiser: The Europeans have stepped forward putting in place a much more aggressive chemical policy. But actually because China and Asia provide products to Europe as much as they provide products to the United States, recent policy changes in Asia have moved toward harmonization with the European standards. So actually the products that are coming onto the market that are not getting selectively oriented to Europe without changing for the U.S. tend to be safer because of the European standards. That’s not true of all products, for instance computers would be an example of a product that Chinese manufacturer would make for Europe and would sell that same computer in the United States. But with regards to other substances like perhaps textiles that are easier to treat differently for different countries, we may see more dangerous chemicals coming into the U.S. than they would coming into Europe.

Benson: Experts believe that about 60 percent of the chemicals in the American market may be dangerous with no safer alternatives available. But Geiser says alternatives exist for a lot of the very worst chemicals. Finding them is a policy he thinks we should follow.

Geiser: They are more expensive, so they would raise the price of products to some degree. But there’s also a lot of effort to develop alternatives. We know a lot today that we didn’t know 50 years ago about what makes chemicals hazardous. It’s possible to design chemicals to be safer and better and fit better into the environment. So, if we have that knowledge, I would argue and I try to argue in the book, that we should employ that capacity of chemistry today to produce chemicals without harm.

Benson: But it doesn’t always take government rules and regulations to get the marketplace to change. If some large businesses have their way, toxic products will die a slow death on their own.  

Geiser: Take Walmart, for instance, which has a screening program. They screen for a list of restrictive substances they do not want their suppliers to provide. The same is true for Target and Staples. Nike has phased out PVC in its footwear. Hewlett Packard has phased out heavy metals – mercury, lead, cadmium. Apple’s moved to aluminum casing on their laptops rather than plastic in order to get away from the additives that go into plastics. So there are real examples where firms, without regulations themselves have moved to switch away from chemicals of high concern to safer substitutes. That’s a kind of a precautionary approach its own right.

Benson: Still, Geiser believes a little push from government would be helpful. He’s hoping that Congress passes pending legislation to reform chemical regulation in the United States. But he says it will take a combination of government, manufacturers, retailers, researchers, and non-governmental agencies to truly erase all doubt about the safety of the products we use every day. You can find out more about all our guests through links on our website

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.


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