Sunday, October 3, 2010
The EPA's Long War on Chemicals
One of the shows I enjoy watching on the Science Channel is “How It’s Made.” All manner of things we use to enhance our lives start out as raw materials and the process of manufacture is a miracle of transformation.
Virtually all forms of manufacturing require some chemical element, often several. Given the indispensability of chemicals in society and commerce, does it strike anyone as odd that, if you were born after 1960, there’s a high likelihood that you grew up being told that “chemicals” are bad?
In 1962 Rachel Carson kicked off this bizarre notion with her bestselling book, “Silent Spring” and environmental groups have maintained a steady drumbeat of scare campaigns to drive home the message that chemicals are dangerous. However, it is rarely noted that most of the claims she made in her iconic book have long since been disproved by science.
One branch of science is called toxicology. Among its most honored truths, attributed to Paracelsus (1493-1541) is that “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” This has been shortened to the statement that “The dose makes the poison.” The truth of this is obvious to most people and perhaps best illustrated vaccines. By introducing a minute element of a disease into our bodies, our immune systems can build resistance to it.
But problems arise when an ill-informed media latches on to the latest junk science craze and splashes misleading stories across newspapers and TV. Missing from virtually all of these stories are key facts – that a bunch of laboratory rats have been exposed to some chemical in doses far higher than would normally occur, for instance, or in ways that would never happen in real life, and then calling it a threat. But humans are not rats and this kind of sloppy science and extrapolation comes with serious issues of data interpretation.
This is one way in which the Environmental Protection Agency’s long war on chemicals is perpetuated. Much of the EPA’s abuse of power comes in the form of chemical action plans, which involve little oversight, even less transparency and little-to-no public accountability. However their power to over-regulate, remove valuable products from the market, and hobble commerce is almost unparalleled.
Currently in the EPA’s chemical action plan crosshairs are siloxanes, a type of silicone which, in turn, comes mostly from sand. Siloxanes are inert, non-allergenic, odorless and colorless. They’ve been safely used for decades in thousands of consumer and industrial products – everything from medical cream and sunscreen to automobile tires, high-efficiency insulation and spacecraft.
There are a wide variety of siloxanes, but the EPA isn’t saying which ones have been targeted making it almost impossible for outside parties to provide any sort of meaningful input to the process. If you wanted to stack the deck against something, that would be a great way to do it.
Another aspect of this latest EPA caper is that the agency draws much of its power from the Toxic Substances Control Act, otherwise known as TSCA. But TSCA is in the process of a congressional overhaul which will probably spill over into next year when a new and possibly Republican-controlled Congress returns in January. Why would EPA want to rush through a chemical action plan for siloxanes when it knows that Congress is still working on TSCA reform?
An unduly harsh chemical action plan for siloxanes could have devastating effects on our limping economic recovery. There is no single substitute for siloxanes that performs as well so industry would be faced with costly reformulations for their products and their manufacturing processes. If a particular business found this too expensive, they’d have to shut down, throwing more Americans out of work. If they can afford it, those costs would undoubtedly be passed along to consumers. And for what? No amount of research has shown any environmental benefit to banning siloxanes.
Since its establishment by an executive order in 1970, the EPA has become the master of misinformation and disinformation intended to drive all manner of beneficial chemicals out of the marketplace and to maintain a level of public fear concerning anything that involves chemicals. Siloxanes and the people who depend on them are merely in line to become the latest victims of the EPA.
It should be renamed the Ministry of Propaganda.
© Alan Caruba, 2010