Speakeasy Science

6.8 Billion Guinea Pigs

One of my treasured books from the 1930s is called “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs”, written by a pair of consumer protection advocates named Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink. The book, born of a crusade to end unregulated use of industrial chemicals, is a wonderful mixture of painstaking research and angry invective.

“Let your voice be heard loudly and often against indifference, ignorance and avarice,” the authors wrote in my 1935 edition (the ninth printing of the book.) “In adulteration and misrepresentation lurks a menace to your health that ought no longer be tolerated.”

The 100,000,000 million guinea pigs of the title were, of course, Kallet and Schlink’s best estimate of the United States population at the time. But I’ve added a few more people in the title of my post today; okay a few billion. But I figure that when it comes to worries about poorly regulated and understood industrial chemicals we should today more fairly include everyone living on the planet.

The inspiration for this was an illuminating story in Environmental Health News. The story, by Ferris Jabr, concerns a class of compounds that I’d certainly never considered as a health issue before: short-chain chlorinated paraffins, which are used as lubricants in metal processing and in fire-retardant materials, among other uses.

The story quotes a Canadian environmental chemist as noting”There is minimal awareness of these compounds.” Yet researchers have found them in human breast milk, and tissues including fat, kidney and liver, and in many food products, ranging from fish to butter, grains to sugar.

Surprisingly little research has been done on the health effects of these compounds – and it appears that many agencies were genuinely surprised when they realized how far spread the materials have become. That may be one reason that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has now placed short-chain chlorinated paraffins on a priority list for intensive study and possible restrictions.

About time says the guinea pig.