This post was written by Jody Roberts.*
After more than a decade of anticipation, the EPA released a draft list of possible endocrine disrupting chemicals that will be subject to a new screening protocol - this according to a new brief in Environmental Science and Technology. So, those of you who've been following this topic from its media peak back in the days of Our Stolen Future might assume that we'd find chemicals like bisphenol-A or classes of chemicals like phthalates - both of which have been the subject of tremendous amounts of research recently. But, well, that's not the case. Rather, the EPA seems to have avoided these chemicals - which are found in a wondrous variety of everyday consumer products - and have chosen to focus exclusively on 73 pesticides.
Okay, not a bad start you might say. Most of these are high production volume chemicals. Why not start here?
Because, as Theo Colborn puts it, "the whole thing is a waste." And Sarah Janssen from NRDC wonders:
Why are they including things that are obviously endocrine disrupters? Why put them through a screening and waste precious resources and time on something we already know is an endocrine disrupter?
Even Mark Maier, the health science policy manager for the pesticide industry trade association agreed:
"There are really no surprises on the list," he says, referring to pesticides with the potential for exposure, but "the screening tests are redundant" and "unnecessary" because the pesticide manufacturers already test their products more comprehensively than any other industry does, including pharmaceuticals. "In some cases, endocrine activity may not be directly attributable to the parent compound" but instead to its metabolites, for example, Maier says, "so it could be missed by screening." He adds that no unknowns appear on the list. "The program evolved through a political process, not a scientific process," he says.
But, again, we've got to start some place, right? So, maybe we're getting a late start, at least we're going to get something in place, start asking tough questions, and addressing the unique problems that stymied efforts in the 1990s when congress first asked for the EPA to begin it's endocrine screening program.
Well, actually, not so much. The big challenges - synergistic effects, standardized methodologies - still haven't been accounted for even in these new calls for action. The EPA will still be examining compounds just one at a time, ignoring calls to explore and understand what happens when organisms are exposed to a variety or compounds at once - as happens in our daily lives. And the EPA still has only two tests at their disposal, neither of which can be called new. Maier notes just how little has changed:
Maier says little has been accomplished since the discussions over endocrine disrupters began in earnest, leaving companies and other stakeholders to make the same arguments they made 10 years ago. He is looking to July, when EPA releases its implementation policy, which should lay out how EPA will propose who will pay for future research on specific compounds.
But in the meantime, state and city government aren't waiting to act. San Francisco is trying to ban toys containing bisphenol-A and phthalates. Similar legislation has been discussed in California, Minnesota, and Maryland. The EU has already approved a ban on phthalates. So, why are all of these other groups already acting? In part, it's because many of the 73 chemicals the EPA is considering investigating further have already been linked to countless studies in other organisms. Perhaps more pressing, many of these chemicals can be found in many of us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been releasing data on human exposure and human body burden systematically for the past 6 years. Their third report, which came out in 2005, tracks many of the chemicals that the EPA is now putting up for consideration. And most of us already have them in us. So while the EPA continues to work to figure just how they'll measure these chemicals, then who will fund the research, then how they'll regulate the chemicals that might test positive, our daily exposure continues.
*Jody Roberts is the Program Manager for Environmental History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. Before beginning that position Roberts was the CHF's Gordon Cain Fellow in Technology, Policy, and Entrepreneurship. Dr. Roberts' dissertation work provided an STS analysis of the green chemistry movement; his current and developing research program focuses on bio-monitoring, the human body burden of toxic chemical exposures, and how we could know about any of that.