Dangerous, toxic chemicals are everywhere: in your furniture, on your walls, and even on your dinner plate. These harmful substances should’ve been banned long before they made it into anyone’s home, but perhaps they’ll finally meet their fate in the roar this new decade will bring.
U.S. government officials have slowly begun to address health concerns related to some of these chemicals, which include asbestos and the infamous lead. But whether the worst offenders will be banned in the next decade will largely depend on the outcome of the 2020 election.
“Apart from what happens federally, I think some of the states are doing an excellent job in moving in adopting regulations that are moving us forward and away from the most dangerous classes of chemicals,” Eve Gartner, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, told Gizmodo. “So I do think I see progress in the next decade. I also see an increasing awareness of the linkage between exposure to chemicals and serious health effects, but people don’t always have a choice in what they buy. And that’s why it’s important for governments to actually get the worst chemicals off the market.”
Under Donald Trump, though, the U.S. government has taken a considerably less aggressive approach to regulating the nasty substances that people in the U.S. are exposed to, such as the ubiquitous PFAS. It’s even delayed improving regulations the Obama administration was already working on. If Trump wins again in 2020, don’t expect many (if any) bans in the country. But let’s dare to dream, yeah? Because many of these chemicals should’ve been out a long time ago—America’s failure to act began long before Trump’s presidency.
You’d think the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have already banned the use of lead in items we’re exposed to every day. After all, the public has known about its dangerous health effects for decades. The government has taken steps since then to reduce public exposure to lead—through banning lead-containing house paint in 1978 and phasing out lead in gasoline by 1996.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the agency has ever issued a full-out ban on the toxic metal that is known to cause delayed learning, decreased IQ, and impaired kidney function, among other things. Supposedly lead-free pipes installed before 2011 can contain up to 8 per cent of the toxin, according to the EPA. And manufactured kids products imported into the U.S. are allowed to contain up to 100 parts per million of lead.
Some furniture is permitted to have lead levels up to 90 parts per million, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed there is no safe level of exposure for children.
American regulators also haven’t done enough to clean up the toxic legacy lead has left behind. In fact, new standards under the Trump administration propose slowing down the replacement of lead pipes in ageing infrastructure, the New York Times reported. Bans are a necessary first step, but they don’t help communities already facing exposure.
“So it isn’t so much a matter of, don’t let it be used anymore,” Penny Fenner-Crisp, the former deputy director for EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, told Gizmodo. “It’s a matter of, we aren’t cleaning it up properly enough.”
Lead-based paint in old homes, contaminated soil, and dust are the main routes for exposure in U.S. homes. A ban would come too little too late for these families, but they need better protections to get this lead out. The Trump administration has been failing on this front; instead of aiming to eliminate childhood lead exposure in the plan it released last year, the agency instead wrote it wants to reduce exposure.
We’ve got a long way to go.
Why hasn’t the U.S. government banned asbestos already? Industry. The EPA has attempted to ban the substance, but in 1991, courts ruled in the favour of industry opponents who sued the agency for trying to take their product out of the market.
The building and construction industry has long used asbestos—white powdery material that may be hiding in your walls—for its heat-resistance and insulating properties. Then it became increasingly clear in the 1940s that asbestos causes cancer and a specific rare kind of cancer, to make matters worse: mesothelioma. It affects the chest and abdomen and is often deadly. Nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. die annually due to asbestos exposure.
Despite all that, the U.S. won’t ban the damn thing. It’s still legal in cement pipe and roof coatings. Even the EPA notes on its website: “Most uses of asbestos are not banned. A few are banned under existing regulations.” That includes adhesives, cement products, and commercial paper. Meanwhile, many vehicle products still contain asbestos, as well as some sheet gaskets used in plumbing. And people are still exposed to the residual asbestos left behind from years of inaction.
“It, like the lead story, is still often a matter of exposures because it’s left over from our decades of use in the past,” said Fenner-Crisp.
This class of chemicals is quickly becoming the poster child of American failure to protect the public. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, include a number of chemicals that scientists are still trying to understand (such as GenX, PFOA, and PFOS). So far, however, the evidence is showing that PFAS is bad, bad, bad. It’s linked to cancer, thyroid problems, infertility, and more.
They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they can last in the environment for seemingly ever. They can also accumulate in a person’s body. And people can be exposed through a number of channels. There’s groundwater, of course, which research shows has been contaminated by the military’s use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. There is also food, which is often packaged in containers that are coated with PFAS. That microwavable bag of popcorn might be a bad idea; so might your Chipotle addiction.
“The fact we introduced these chemicals in the first place without proper regulatory scrutiny has meant that we are still dealing with the impacts, and part of the reason we didn’t adequately regulate them in the first place is that the manufacturing companies did not provide all of the pertinent scientific information on them to inform the public of the toxic effect that they knew about decades ago,” Genna Reed, the lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Centre for Science and Democracy, told Gizmodo.
While some PFAS chemicals can no longer be manufactured in the U.S, they can be imported, according to the EPA. The EPA put out a plan to better monitor these chemicals earlier this year, but the plan doesn’t move forward in creating formal regulations for the chemicals or even a speedy timeline to address the urgency of the issue. All it does is drag the agency’s feet longer to actually put together a proper plan.
This chemical might trigger thoughts of dead things and embalming fluids (or is that only me?), but its use is much more common than you might imagine. In fact, formaldehyde—a colourless, flammable gas with a strong odour some describe as pickled—can be found in manufactured wood products that likely sit in your living room, as well as other building materials. However, people can also be exposed to formaldehyde from released due to industrial processes, such as natural gas combustion.
Most homes in the U.S. rely on this gas to heat their homes in the winter, but doing so endangers the health of the communities closest to these facilities, said Reed. That’s because formaldehyde exposure may lead to an increased risk of asthma, neurological effects, and potentially cancer. According to the Intercept, 90 per cent of U.S. cancer risk due to air pollution in communities that see an elevated risk can be attributed to three chemicals: ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and formaldehyde.
Still, the EPA has delayed efforts within the agency to assess the science so that formaldehyde can be better regulated, Reed said. Since 2011, the agency has been updating the chemical’s risk assessment. Despite internal pressure for EPA staff to complete the review, leaders at the agency have been pushing out the narrative that it’s not a priority, as the Union of Concerned Scientists found through public records requests.
It’s tough to ban a product—or even effectively regulate it in the market—without science breaking down what uses are safe and what uses aren’t. So we may be years away from any form of ban, but “science needs to inform the standards at the agency,” Reed said. Right now, not even that’s happening.
We’re all exposed to dangerous substances on the regular. There’s not much we can do to prevent exposure to things like wildfire smoke, but there’s a lot our policymakers can do to reduce exposure to industrial toxins.
By the year 2030, we can only hope society will stop this senseless pollution.