Recent Studies Highlight the Gap Between 21st Century Science vs 20th Century Regs

by jim on July 20, 2015

N8000055-Coloured_artwork_of_a_doctor_bleeding_a_patient-SPL.jpgImagine writing rules for flying commercial passenger jets that don't consider the impacts of wind, weather, and other flight paths on how they operate.

Now imagine writing rules for how much poison you can breathe, drink, eat, or touch that don't consider the impacts of those poisons in combination with one another inside you, or vastly underestimate the amount of poisons you're being exposed to in the first place.

Both approaches to regulations would be reckless. But whereas one is ridiculous, the other is law.

Two recent studies once again demonstrated how wide and misleading the gap is between current environmental health science and current environmental health regulations.

One survey that included the work of almost 200 published authors coordinated by California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute concluded that combinations of different chemical exposures, even if all of them were within so-called "safe" levels, could increase cancer risks.

“Many [chemicals] have the possibility, when they are combined, to cause the initiation of cancer,” said Hemad Yasaei, a cancer biologist at Brunel University in England, one of the authors of the report. “They could have a synergistic or enhanced effect.” 

But this is not the way that chemical exposures are regulated in the U.S.

Instead, the EPA tests one chemical at a time on lab animals, exposing them to progressively smaller amounts until the chemical no longer causes tumors. The Agency takes that dose, determines the equivalent for humans, and applies what is called a “margin of safety” by declaring that some small fraction of that low dose is safe for people.

This approach reflects the Medieval axiom, “The dose makes the poison." However, it doesn't reflect modern human physiology.

That "margin of safety" is never put to the test as part of an epidemiological study to correlate exposure with safety. It's just assumed. And it's also assumed that the margin will remain the same no matter how man other harmful exposures the body may encounter. This latest meta survey of the data shows that approach to be a wrong-headed assumption.
For example, endocrine disrupting chemicals can actually be more toxic at lower levels depending when a fetus is exposed to them because the human body is attuned to respond to minute amounts of natural hormones such as estrogen and testosterone during development.

Different chemical exposures can affect the body like bird shot. One pellet alone is unlikely to cause you a problem, but dozens or hundreds of pellets will start to add up, effecting different systems, and cause a catastrophic failure.  

"Since each of these chemicals affects different processes that could lead to cancer — bisphenol A makes cells less sensitive to signals to stop reproducing, for example, while atrazine encourages inflammation — it’s plausible that consuming mixtures of these chemicals is riskier than consuming any one individually."

We're living with over 80,000 different synthetic chemicals on the marketplace. This survey only focused on 85. Of those 85, 50 were found to affect cancer-causing processes in the body, even at very low doses.

"We live in a chemical soup,' said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who was not involved in the new study. Considering the safety of individual chemicals is a lot like looking at the trees, but missing the forest, Birnbaum said. When doing research to determine chemical safety, 'we’ve got to start thinking more about what reality is,' she said. This could mean sweeping changes in rules about the levels of chemicals considered safe in drinking water, food, and air. 'I’d like to see regulators and policy makers start looking at the totality of the exposure instead of one chemical at a time,” she said. 

Yes, but when will our modeling and testing for human chemical exposure be as sophisticated as our human body's reaction to it in real life?

And what if official estimates about multiple chemical exposures were not only discounted, but the estimates for how much chemical you're being exposed to everyday was vastly underestimated?

Most people don't understand that numbers about the size of toxic releases from industry are generated mostly from estimates based on calculations, not actual measurements at the facility or in the environment. You have a chemical plant or cement kiln, it has x, y and z kind of equipment on it. That equipment is rated by the manufacturer to be X efficient, and therefore government regulators assume it is. There is no real time measuring of pollution for most facilities and most kinds of chemicals. The "emissions calculations" that go into a permit or "tons per year" number are guesses, and may or my not actually come close to describing what's coming out of the facility.

The weakness of that part of the regulatory system was revealed by a Environmental Defense Fund study showing that EPA estimates about the amount of methane coming off gas sites were off by as much as 50%.

Methane is a bad actor in and of itself because it's a greenhouse gas that has 25 times greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. But if methane is being underestimated at gas sites, so probably are other, more directly toxic kinds of pollutants, like Benzene.

Almost every time a researcher bores down to look at a specific plant or industry, actually testing the accuracy of the calculations with real world data, they find more air pollution than estimated. It's just a matter of faith or luck that we may or may not be exceeding "safe" levels of exposures, which may or may not be that safe to begin with.

To recap: We're exposed to lots and lots of chemicals. We don't really know how much, or how much is safe for you to be exposed to, and we still have an environmental health testing protocol that's the toxicological equivalent of using leeches. But don't worry, the EPA is "overregulating" industry!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim Feil July 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm

What is a blantant, reckless assult on the public was that they did use the Precautionary Principle in plopping some of these drill sites and compressor stations near existing emission sources. Here in Arlington they put them on GM's campus, near the water treatment plant, near the Handley Power Plant, the Arlington Airport, the DFW Airport etc…on the flip side….. It was weird that the TCEQ would report on a suma canister reading that Benzene was a ND (non-detect) at the drill site near my home on 12/4/12…what ever happened to the background reading…it jus' went away? #not2Btrusted

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Kim Feil July 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm

did NOT use the Precautionary Principle

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