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Electronics production in Batam, Indonesia: “OSH is the most important. If we are sick we cannot earn our salaries.”

Category: Occupational Health & Safety
Posted on: October 29, 2010 7:19 PM, by The Pump Handle

by Elizabeth Grossman

Batam, one of Indonesia’s Riau Islands, sits across the smog-choked strait from Singapore, just one degree north of the equator. On October 21 and 22, the days that I’m there, newspaper headlines announce that Singapore is experiencing its worst air pollution since 2006 due to fires, most likely from illegal forest clearing in Sumatra. From a high point above the harbor where we go to see the view, the ship traffic below is mostly obscured by gray haze. A tourist brochure extols the island’s natural features, but what’s most evident is rampant development. Enormous gaudy housing and shopping complexes, strip malls, and new industrial parks appear to be eating up the tropical greenery and eroding the hillsides. Traffic, as in Bandung and Jakarta, is a road-clogging scrum in which motorcycles weave precariously between bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks. It is almost 100ºF, so hot that in the un-airconditioned FSPMI union headquarters, sweat from my hand soaks through my notebook page.

Thanks to much of the island’s designation as a special economic zone beginning in 1989, Batam has been experiencing explosive growth. In the 1970s, the island’s population was under 10,000. Today it has soared to about 900,000 and continues to grow. The industry here is primarily electronics – shipbuilding and general manufacturing are also major industries – with Batam’s workers providing inexpensive labor for assembly line production for Singapore-based operations of international companies. Panasonic, Epson, Sanyo, Siemens, Flextronics, Infineon, Teac, Schneider, Unisem, and Philips are some of the names we see on factory buildings in the Batamindo Industrial Park, one of the island’s largest industrial parks. The website for its Singapore-based developer notes that more than 60,000 people work for the companies located here.

The entrance to the industrial park is guarded, and fencing surrounds both factories and workers’ dormitories. The FSPMI (Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers, which is affiliated with the International Metal Workers Union) union leaders who are driving my colleagues and me around the park caution against taking pictures within sight of the security guards or police we pass frequently on our tour. The dormitories are numbered, three-storey buildings. Laundry hangs from some balconies and fire extinguishers are mounted on outside walls. All windows are completely covered by identical green shades.

At a union meeting
FSPMI hosts an evening meeting so workers can share information. We meet in a hotel that specializes in accommodations for people making the haj to Mecca. Clocks behind the reception desk show “Jakarta time,” “Singapore time,” and “Mecca time.”
That electronics workers here are unionized is remarkable, as unions are the exception throughout the electronics industry worldwide – a legacy of the historical anti-union bias of the microchip industry. But there are several different unions representing workers in Batam. Wages have traditionally been the focus, with occupational safety and health often being overlooked, one of the FSPMI leaders says. “But OSH is the most important issue,” he says. “Because if we are sick we cannot work and cannot earn our salaries.”

There are about two dozen people around the table, roughly three-quarters of them men and the rest from the union’s Women’s Forum. Most of the women wear headscarves. People introduce themselves by describing the companies they work for and the products they work on. “Epson – printer scanner.” “Singapore company supplying Sanyo, Epson, Philips.” “Unisem – integrated circuits.” “Seagate Technology. “Alcatel manufacture for AT&T, Dell, Compaq, Bose.” “Japanese company making Blu-Ray, DVD, CD disks.” “Wiring systems for Toyota, Sumimoto, Honda, Suzuki.” “Varta – lithium battery. “Techtron – MP3 and toys.” “Sanyo – battery for mobile phone.” “Fujitsu, HP – hard drive.” And the list goes on.

Along with this information, people share some of the concerns they have about the health effects of this work. Heat, dust, noise, physical discomfort, muscoskeletal and ergonomic problems are mentioned. Problems with eyesight are cited by people who use what they call “scopes” to examine products.

One union member describes his hearing loss after working at the same factory for ten years. He’s had to go to Jakarta (about 540 miles away) for treatment, he says, showing us copies of his audiometry tests. Another, who’s worked for Varta for 15 years making nickel metal hydride batteries, tells us of colleagues suffering from cancer. Yet another union member tells us about co-workers who’ve been diagnosed with lung disease official diagnosis is TB – “from printed circuit board cutting dust.”

Several people mention women’s reproductive health concerns, among them menstrual problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and quadruplets. One man puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder and tells us of her breast cancer. She’s spent 15 years working in a plant assembling lithium batteries. No one knows if there’s a connection, but when pressed, the company management paid for her treatment.

The FSPMI Women’s Forum was established in 2009 so women could discuss workplace issues specific to them. Among these are reproductive health hazards and reproductive health rights, including those for pregnant workers. We’re told of one plant where almost 90 percent of the workers are women.

“No information or training on chemicals”
The next day, I speak with a young woman named Wulan, who tells me that many of the women who work in the plant with a 90 percent female workforce have come to Batam from far away in other parts of Indonesia, many recruited just after high school.

Wulan came to Batam from Yogyakarta in west central Java – near Mount Merapi, the volcano currently erupting – in 2007. Until her contract was ended recently, she had been working at a Panasonic plant in safety control. Her job was to prepare protective gear for the workers and make sure everyone going into the clean room was properly outfitted with face mask, booties, hairnet, coveralls, etc. A typical working day is 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., she tells me, with three hours of that, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., as overtime. But there’s also a night shift. She tells me she calls her family every day.

She also tells me that co-workers in line production have become sick from work they do cleaning parts. “There are lots of solvents,” she days. People have problems with their legs from whole days standing. Reproductive health problems are mentioned again.

“The union has tried to investigate chemicals using MSDS (material safety data sheets) and found that all the chemicals being used are dangerous,” one union member tells us. “The MSDS says because of gas respiratory protection should be used but workers only use paper or cotton masks,” he says. Methylene chloride, benzene, TCE, lithium, methanol, metal solvent, nickel metal hydride, isopropyl alcohol, nickel, Pergasol, and other metals and solvents are among the chemicals people have questions about.

When I ask if workers are given any special training on handling hazardous chemicals, I am told, “No information or training on chemicals. Just what we learn from MSDS.” Another issue raised is that workers move from factory to factory – many on short-term contracts, some only three moths long – so it’s difficult to build leadership on these issues, let alone organize workers. This also makes it difficult to trace diseases.

At one plant assembling circuit boards, recounts one union member, the management said theirs was a “clean industry” because “they collect all the particles.” We’re also told that at some plants workers are offered milk at the end of the day – with the intent of counteracting chemical effects. When concerns about health impacts of chemical exposure were raised with management, one response from employers has been, “What is your scientific proof that this industry can be hazardous?”

Some of the factories described are apparently ISO certified or ROHs compliant. But none of this guarantees employees the right to know the identity or hazards of the chemicals they’re working with. The people we meet are working hard to inform themselves.

Sustainable R&D

In a technology park just north of Boston, a new model for sustainable chemical research and development is unfolding. Created in 2007, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry (WBI), led by organic chemist John C. Warner, is working with industry partners to redefine how scientists solve the technical challenges of developing safer chemical products and greener production processes.

Warner had been frustrated with the limited intellectual freedom of working in a traditional industry research position and with the funding restrictions of the academic environment. Then he hit on the idea of creating an academic-style laboratory but financing it like a contract R&D business, with clients paying experts to help solve their problems. Enter James Babcock, a Harvard-trained corporate lawyer who spent much of his career leading a global investment firm. Babcock, who is the chairman of WBI’s board of directors, provided the seed funding and, with mechanical engineer and entrepreneur William Kunzweiler, helped Warner get started.

In three years, Warner and his research team have become go-to scientists when manufacturing companies have an application they would like to improve but not the chemical expertise to accomplish the task. The institute is creating patentable intellectual property at a rapid pace: WBI has filed for some 140 patents for itself and its clients, and five products it has helped develop are ready to enter the marketplace. WBI is also cash positive from the income it receives from contracts with its clients, Warner says, although he declines to divulge the firm’s annual operating budget. These achievements have come during the worst U.S. economy in decades.

“It’s a successful model,” Warner beams. “I don’t want to paint it as being easy,” he says about the revenue-generating R&D at WBI. “We put in a lot of long hours here. We have a lot of hard-working people.”

WBI scientists are currently developing toxicology screening technologies such as a material that mimics eye tissue to substitute for live-animal testing, a nontoxic aqueous solution for stripping photoresist from silicon wafers, a less energy-intensive process for making solar panels, and alternatives to the controversial chemical bisphenol A used in plastic bottles and cash-register receipt paper. Warner, who serves as WBI’s president and chief technology officer, notes that each of these projects has its roots in green chemistry.

In 1996, Warner and organic chemist Paul T. Anastas literally wrote the book on green chemistry: “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.” Anastas is now the assistant administrator in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research & Development (C&EN, April 26, page 32).

In their “molecular-level how-to guide,” Warner and Anastas established the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, a framework of concepts such as using less hazardous reagents and solvents, simplifying reactions and making them more energy efficient, using renewable feedstocks, and designing products that can be easily recycled or that break down into innocuous substances in the environment.

“Green chemistry is the mechanics of doing sustainable chemistry,” Warner observes. “By focusing on green chemistry, it puts us in a different innovative space. It is a science that presents industries with an incredible opportunity for continuous growth and competitive advantage.”

Being Green

Warner started his career in 1988 as a research chemist at Polaroid, working on colorless-to-color printing technologies. Yearning to make a bigger difference with green chemistry, he left his lucrative job in 1996 to take an academic position at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he established the first doctoral program in green chemistry. In 2004, Warner moved to UMass Lowell, where he founded the Center for Green Chemistry. But Warner still felt the pace of innovation—putting green chemistry into practice—was moving too slowly, prompting him to take a leap of faith and start WBI.

When WBI opened its doors three years ago, it had a staff of 10, Warner notes. Because of its financial success and ability to attract a steady stream of clients—even without advertising—the institute now has about 40 employees, including chemists, biologists, toxicologists, engineers, and physicists.

A walk through WBI’s 42,000-sq-ft facility reveals standard lab benches, fume hoods, and analytical instrumentation, plus an array of specialized lab equipment and instruments for developing, analyzing, and testing films, coatings, and surfaces. Much of Warner’s chemistry, he explains, is based on the concept of “noncovalent derivatization,” which employs hydrogen bonding and π-stacking interactions of aromatic ring compounds.

“Normally, when chemists want to modify a molecule, they use reaction chemistry to change or add functional groups or perhaps form a polymer—changes that often involve multiple steps, hazardous reagents, and create waste,” Warner says. “Sometimes, there’s no need to create new molecules, but instead to intentionally combine an existing molecule with other substances in appropriate ratios and use the noncovalent interactions to obtain the desired effect.” The properties of materials can typically be controlled by pH, temperature, light, or humidity, he notes, and these materials typically have reduced toxicological and environmental impact.

“It’s chemistry controlled by entropy rather than by enthalpy,” Warner says.

One of WBI’s successes is significantly improving the oral availability of a promising Parkinson’s disease drug that was impractical to administer to patients. The drug is now in clinical trials.

“Because the dose can be much smaller, less drug has to be manufactured, and that significantly reduces chemical waste, which is very high in pharmaceutical production,” Warner explains. “But more important, with the lower dose, the body excretes less drug or drug metabolites into the environment. We accomplished this by looking at the morphology of the molecule and taking advantage of noncovalent interactions to control its solubility and release kinetics.”

WBI scientists have also created a green hair dye—not one that dyes hair green, but rather one that restores natural hair color while avoiding highly toxic chemicals. For example, Warner points to one popular commercial hair product for men that uses lead tetraacetate, which is toxic and has been banned in some countries.

“We really wanted to work on something to replace that product,” Warner says. “We looked at the structure of human hair pigment and came up with a greener technology to mimic it.”

Not only is Warner one of the inventors of the dye, which is still being tested, he is also a user. He volunteered to test the dye on his own graying hair, restoring the chestnut color and his youthful look from a decade ago.

“We are kind of working all over the place,” Warner notes. “My philosophy is that a molecule doesn’t know what kind of application it’s in—it could care less if it’s in a pharmaceutical, a cosmetic, or a coating material. We rely on our partners to know the application they want. We focus on developing the chemistry to make it happen. It’s a true collaboration.”

Essentially all of the research conducted at WBI goes unpublished. Warner says it’s not his goal to build up an endless publishing record. And the institute shuns public recognition from the companies it partners with, he adds. Warner doesn’t name names when it comes to the institute’s clients either. But they are recognizable, household names, he says.

Warner says he just wants to develop and promote green chemistry as a model way to do science. For that reason, he insists that contracts with clients include an “antiburial clause” to ensure that the intellectual property doesn’t collect dust on a shelf—if it does, the rights revert back to WBI so the invention can be put to use.

Aside from the science, the culture of the Warner Babcock Institute is driven home by the amenities of its research facilities: a full kitchen, workout room, yoga studio, game room, and a replica of Grandma Warner’s living room with a television and sofas. “Our goal is to provide our staff with an environment that enables scientific achievement through interactions of a diverse and multidisciplinary team,” Warner says. “We do everything we can to foster creativity and hard work with laid-back intensity.”

It’s a different approach. Given WBI’s success thus far, Warner and his team seem to have gotten it right.

Originally published: Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society

Could estimating environmental risk soon be a click away?

Papa, E and P Gramatica. 2010. QSPR as a support for the EU REACH regulation and rational design of environmentally safer chemicals: PBT identification from molecular structure. Green Chemistry 12:836-843.

Synopsis by Adelina Voutchkova, Sep 16, 2010

A new computer model may be a significant step forward in predicting the cumulative environmental risk of new and existing chemicals, say researchers who developed it. The model uses a compound’s chemical structure to classify its toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation – three major traits regulators use to flag a chemical’s potential environmental hazards.

The benefits are significant: working computer models could minimize the need for animal testing, identify highly hazardous compounds already in use and tag the most harmful ones before they are manufactured or introduced to the market.

Globally, thousands of new chemicals are produced each year. The United States alone introduces between 700 and 800. New regulations – such as the Toxic Substances Control Act (ToSCA) in the United States and the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in Europe – will require toxicity and persistence testing for all new chemicals. However, given the high cost of standard animal toxicity testing, companies may be unable to comply. In addition, current tests can miss some crucial human health risks, such as endocrine activity and fetal toxicity. Additional costly and time-consuming animal studies need to be performed to test for these effects.

The ongoing research into alternative, computer-based testing spans decades. Regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia have made progress developing models, but the scope is usually limited. Most models can accurately predict a particular hazard for only a small class of structurally-related chemicals.

The new model developed by researchers at Italy’s University of Insubria may go beyond a one-hazard, one-chemical type of approach. The researchers combined information from 180 organic chemicals – including some notorious environmental pollutants such as dioxins, PCBs and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – to build a robust computational model. This model ranked the compounds based on their cumulative harm, such that the highest ranked chemicals would have the greatest potential to be toxic, cumulative and persistent.

According to the paper, the model successfully predicted the simultaneous persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity (PBT) behavior of chemicals based on their chemical structure. The model is applicable to a wide variety of chemicals but was based on traditional, organic-type compounds. It could act as a qualifying tool and may be useful in helping chemists design less hazardous industrial chemicals and materials

Some limitations exist, however, to this approach. The model might not work as well for new, distinct chemicals designed with different chemical properties from those used to build the model. This is because models are based on what is known about how certain chemicals behave in people and the environment. Little information may be known about how new types of chemicals behave, making good hazard predictions challenging. For example, nanomaterials are used in numerous innovative products – such as self-cleaning fabrics, ultra-strong alloys and bacteria-resistant surfaces. But, their toxicity is puzzling and does not always conform to toxicity or environmental behavior patterns that could be predicted by their chemical structure.

Data mining predicts chemical-gene-cancer associations.

Patel, CJ and AJ Butte. 2010. Predicting environmental chemical factors associated with disease-related gene expression data. BMC Medical Genomics http:dx.doi.org/10.1186/1755-8794-3-17.

Synopsis by Thea Edwards

A mix of data gathered from two large databases is one of the next steps in understanding how the environment interacts with genes to influence disease, according to two Stanford scientists who are trying to untangle the interrelated effects. The pair analyzed information that was collected through new analytical methods – such as gene arrays – to better understand and predict environment-gene-disease patterns.

This so-called data-mining approach is a useful and cost-effective way to identify interactions among hundreds of chemicals and thousands of genetic measurements associated with a disease. The associations can then be targeted for more efficient and specific experimental tests or epidemiological studies.

Many diseases – including cancer – result from interactions between a person’s genes and the environment. Environmental factors – such as contaminants, temperature, food and others – can alter the way some genes function. That is, if and when they turn on or off and the kind and quantity of proteins they make. The changes to gene function can influence a cell’s chemical signals and lead to disease.

But, laboratory and human studies designed to understand the connections are time consuming and expensive. An alternative is to tap into the vast amount of stored genetic information that has been collected through faster and cheaper laboratory methods – such as gene arrays – and stored in large computer databases.

In this study, the researchers relied on two public databases. One tracks which chemicals influence which genes – known as a chemical/gene signature. It also has information about the next step: which genes can influence disease.  The other database has information on what proteins or products the genes make that may be associated with disease – called gene expression patterns. The researchers integrated information from the two databases, relating the chemical-gene signatures for 1,338 chemicals to the changes in gene expression that are associated with certain diseases.

The researchers specifically report on the environmental chemicals related to prostate, lung and breast cancers. They chose these three common cancers because much is already known about which chemicals and genes interact to influence them. By identifying these known interactions, they verified that the computer methods they developed work to predict environmental factors associated with disease.

They found that breast and prostate cancers were associated with estrogenic chemicals, including estradiol (the main form of estrogen in humans), genistein (a plant phytoestrogen found in soy) and bisphenol A (a synthetic estrogen used to make polycarbonate plastics).

Lung cancer was associated with exposure to sodium arsenite (an arsenic-containing mutagen), vanadium pentoxide (used to manufacture polyester, PVC plastics and newer vanadium-based batteries) and dimethylnitrosamine (found in tobacco smoke and a carcinogenic byproduct created during chlorination of wastewater).

These findings are consistent with other experimental and epidemiological studies. The results indicate that data-mining is a valid and cost-effective way to direct future experimental or epidemiological research that will investigate the specifics of how environmental factors affect disease.

The authors note that their approach shows association – that one is related to the other – and does not predict the direction of the association. Therefore, they cannot tell from their findings if the chemicals cause or prevent the disease.

Originally published in Environmental Health News, Sep 09, 2010

TOX21 Pools Government Agencies’ Resources to Test Chemicals for Toxicity.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has joined the Tox21 collaboration, which leverages federal agency resources, including research, funding and testing tools, to develop models for more effective chemical risk assessments. The FDA is expected to provide additional expertise and chemical safety information to improve current chemical testing methods.

The collaboration, established in 2008, includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the National Institute of Health Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC) and now the FDA.

EPA says 2,000 chemicals have already been screened against dozens of biological targets. The group is targeting 10,000 chemicals screened by the end of the year.

FDA will collaborate with other Tox21 members to prioritize chemicals that need more extensive toxicological evaluation, and develop models that can better predict human response to chemicals.

EPA contributes to Tox21 through the ToxCast program and by providing chemicals and additional automated tests to NCGC. ToxCast currently includes 500 chemical screening tests that have assessed more 300 environmental chemicals.

A major part of the Tox21 partnership is the robotic screening and informatics platform at NCGC that uses fast, automated tests to screen thousands of chemicals a day for toxicological activity in cells, says EPA.

In April, the EPA launched its Web-based chemicals database, ToxRefDB, which allows anyone to search and download thousands of toxicity testing results on hundreds of chemicals. This latest announcement is part of the EPA’s policy to increase the transparency of chemical information.

Few people know their name, but these chemicals have become EPA priority.

Few people know their name, but these chemicals have become EPA priority

from Environmental Health Sciences

An obscure family of chemicals – important to the metalworking industry but virtually unknown to the public – is suddenly the subject of scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals, called short-chain chlorinated paraffins, persist in the environment, accumulate in human breast milk, can kill small aquatic creatures and travel to remote regions of the globe. Since their introduction in the 1930s, they have received little attention from U.S. authorities. But now the EPA, in an unprecedented move, has placed the compounds, known as SCCPs, on a short list of worrisome chemicals that the agency may regulate because of the risks they pose to wildlife and the environment.


Metal-working companies often use chlorinated paraffins as lubricants and coolants.

By Ferris Jabr

An obscure family of chemicals – important to the metalworking industry but virtually unknown to the public – is suddenly the subject of scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The chemicals, called short-chain chlorinated paraffins, persist in the environment, accumulate in human breast milk, can kill small aquatic creatures and travel to remote regions of the globe.

Since their introduction in the 1930s, chlorinated paraffins have received little attention from U.S. authorities. But now the EPA, in an unprecedented move, has placed the compounds, known as SCCPs, on a short list of worrisome chemicals that the agency may regulate because of the risks they pose to wildlife and the environment.

“We find SCCPs worldwide,” said Tala Henry, acting deputy director of the EPA’s National Program Chemicals Division. “We’ve found them in animals in the Arctic and we have measured them in human tissues in several places around the globe.”

Despite evidence of widespread exposure, few scientists are actively studying the prevalence, toxicity and ecological impact of SCCPs. In contrast, other chemicals that persist in the environment – such as DDT and dioxins – have received far more attention from researchers.

“There is minimal awareness of these compounds,” said Gregg Tomy, an environmental chemist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. “It’s certainly not a chemical that’s on people’s radar screens.”

Chlorinated paraffins are a complex group of manmade compounds, primarily used as coolants and lubricants in metal forming and cutting. They also are used as plasticizers and flame retardants in rubber, paints, adhesives, sealants and plastics. The family of chemicals is organized into short, medium and long-chain paraffins, based on the length of their carbon backbones.

About 150 million pounds of chlorinated paraffins are used annually in the United States, according to the EPA. Ohio-based Dover Chemical Corp., the sole manufacturer of SCCPs in the United States, did not respond to requests for an interview.

“There is minimal awareness of these compounds. It’s certainly not a chemical that’s on people’s radar screens.”
-Gregg Tomy, University of Manitoba
Although Europe has restricted use of SCCPs, their manufacture is growing in China and possibly in India, raising concerns that worldwide exposure levels for people and wildlife might be increasing.

China’s production of the chemicals has increased 30-fold in fewer than 20 years.

“We are pretty worried at the moment,” said Jacob Boer, head of the department of chemistry and biology of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit (VU University) in Amsterdam. “The increase of chlorinated paraffin production in China is exponential.”

In an unprecedented use of the 1976 Toxic Control Substances Act, the EPA in December placed short-chain chlorinated paraffins on a list of four chemicals that may pose unreasonable risks to health and the environment. In its action plan, the EPA announced its intentions to investigate and manage those risks, possibly restricting or banning future use of SCCPs in the United States.

It is the first time that the EPA has investigated the compounds, which are already regulated in Europe and under review in Canada.

Traces of the chemicals are found in the breast milk of Inuit women in Arctic Canada.

Scientists have found the chemicals in the air, on land, in foods, in wastewater and in river and ocean sediments in North America, Asia, Europe and the Arctic, according to a report by a United Nations review committee for the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty that restricts toxic compounds.

“You find them pretty much wherever you go to look for them,” said Tomy, who found significant concentrations in sediments around the Great Lakes region.

SCCPs are accumulating in the fat tissues of freshwater fish such as trout and carp in North America and Europe, marine mammals including Beluga whales, ringed seals and walruses in the Canadian Arctic, land animals including rabbit, moose and reindeer in Sweden, and birds and seabird eggs in the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, certain SCCPs may biomagnify – meaning their concentration increases as they move through food chains, according to a 2008 field study on Lake Ontario trout.

Researchers have also measured SCCPs in human livers, kidneys, fat tissue and breast milk, according to the EPA action plan. Traces were found in 21 out of 25 samples of breast milk from women in London and Lancaster in a 2006 study in the United Kingdom. They also were measured in breast milk from Inuit women in Arctic Canada in a 1997 study by Tomy and colleagues.

“We are pretty worried at the moment. The increase of chlorinated paraffin production in China is exponential.”
-Jacob Boer, Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
However, since so few scientists are studying the toxicity of SCCPs and their impact on health and the environment, the consequences of the widespread exposure remain unclear.

SCCPs are highly toxic to small aquatic invertebrates and plants that fish and other animals feed on, so the chemicals may endanger aquatic ecosystems. But toxicity to humans and other mammals has been more difficult to determine.

“Whether these compounds are now challenging organisms, I can’t say for certain,” said Tomy. “But because they are so persistent, we can expect them to continue to accumulate. At some point there is going to be serious cause for concern.”

Chlorinated paraffins are highly toxic to Daphnia, tiny crustaceans in aquatic ecosystems.

Laboratory tests show that SCCPs are highly toxic to Daphnia, tiny aquatic crustaceans known as water fleas that are important food sources in lakes, streams and other ecosystems, according to a 2000 European Union risk assessment.

To fish, the compounds are less acutely toxic, but chronic exposure damages them. Rainbow trout fed SCCPs in their food developed severe liver tumors, according to a study by Canadian researchers.

The concentrations that caused the fish tumors “were at levels that have been reported in invertebrates and fish from contaminated sites in the Great Lakes. However, the exposure concentrations were likely much greater in these experiments compared with the environment and require further study,” according to the 1999 study, whose senior author was Derek Muir, one of the world’s leading experts on persistent pollutants in fish and wildlife. Requests to interview Muir were denied by Environment Canada.

Other studies have found that SCCPs can cause slight egg shell thinning in mallard ducks and can damage the livers of otters.

Although there are no human studies on their effects, SCCPs can cause cancer in laboratory rats and mice, specifically damaging the liver, thyroid and kidney. Still, the EPA’s action plan and the UN report note that the mechanisms by which these cancers were induced in rodents are not relevant to human health.

For people who do not work in the metal industry, a primary route of exposure to the chemicals is food, according to the EPA action plan.

Researchers in 2002 measured SCCPs in cow’s milk and butter from Europe. They also have been found in many different foods in Japan, including grains, sugar, sweets and snacks, vegetables, fruit, fish, meats and milk. The concentrations were particularly high in shellfish, meat and fats, such as margarines and oils, according to the 2005 study in Japan.

How the chemicals got in the environment is not well understood. “We can confidently say there has been exposure, but exactly how they got there is a difficult question,” said Henry of the EPA.

Although there are no human studies on the effects of the chemicals, SCCPs can cause cancer in laboratory rats and mice, specifically damaging the liver, thyroid and kidney. Possible routes include accidental spills, runoff from disposal, and effluents of sewage treatment plants, states the EPA action plan. “SCCPs can be released during production, transportation, storage, and industrial use,” Tomy said.

The chemicals also might leach out of commercial plastic and rubber products in which they are used as flame retardants and plasticizers, he said. Once in the environment, SCCPs – which do not dissolve in water – bind to sediments and to tiny aquatic organisms, working their way up food chains.

According to Tomy, the inherent complexity of chlorinated paraffins makes it difficult for scientists to identify and analyze them.

“There are only a few labs in the world, and you can count them on one hand, that are actively working in this area because of the complexity,” Tomy said. “This makes PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and PBDEs [polybrominated diphenyl ethers] seem like a walk in the park in terms of detection and quantification.”

“They are difficult to characterize,” Henry agreed. “There’s a difference in interpretation about what a short-chain chlorinated paraffin is.”

Bright Star/flickr
Beluga whales are among the species contaminated with chlorinated paraffins.

The result is that the EPA knows far less about SCCPs than other chemicals such as DDT that persist in the environment and accumulate in people and wildlife. “Compared with other persistent chemicals, there’s the least amount of toxicity and exposure data,” Henry said.

Nevertheless, several authorities already have regulated them. Their use and marketing are restricted in Europe. Both Health Canada and Environment Canada have deemed all chlorinated paraffins “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999. Requests to interview Environment Canada scientists who have studied SCCPs were denied.

According to their new action plan, the EPA will consider using the Toxic Substances Control Act to “ban or restrict the manufacture, import, processing or distribution in commerce, export, and use of SCCPs” based on evidence about their environmental and health effects.

Although the EPA says it wants to move quickly to address the risks posed by SCCPs, the agency does not know when it will reach any regulatory decisions.

Under the federal toxics law, the EPA maintains an inventory of over 80,000 chemicals authorized for use in the United States. If a company wants to produce or use a chemical not found on that inventory, they must receive EPA approval by submitting a premanufacture notice that describes its environmental effects.

According to the EPA, some U.S. companies are using chlorinated paraffins that do not appear on the inventory. Tala said the EPA’s first step is to find out why.

Robert Fensterheim, executive director of the Chlorinated Paraffins Industry Association and President of RegNet Environmental Services, said he is not particularly concerned about the potential outcomes of the EPA’s action plan.

The EPA says it wants to move quickly to address the risks posed by SCCPs, but there is no timeframe for any regulatory decisions.“The effects on industry are not going to be broad scale,” Fensterheim said. “Given the limited amount that is produced and used, our assumption is that most people using the product already have responsible management in place. They won’t need to do anything they’re not already doing.”

Fensterheim disputes the EPA’s estimate that 150 million pounds are used annually in the United States. The demand, he said, is closer to 50 or 60 million pounds per year and decreasing.

“This is not a high volume chemical,” he said. “It’s been declining in its production value for quite some time.” The reason for the disagreement may be due to difficulty in defining exactly what a short-chain chlorinated paraffin is.

Manufacture and use of SCCPs have decreased in Canada, Europe and the United States but production is increasing at a rapid rate in China.

“If that production would have to be limited, it would be a major problem for the China metal industry,” said Boer of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit. The increased production rate could also aggravate the ecological risks of the chemicals, he said.

Chlorinated paraffins are transported worldwide, winding up in the Arctic.

The production of chlorinated paraffins in China soared from 20,000 tons in 1990 to over 600,000 tons in 2007, according to a 2009 presentation by Jiang Gui-bin of the State Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology in Beijing, China. If this rate continues, production in China alone could soon surpass the entire historic, worldwide usage of PCBs, which remain a contaminant of global concern even though they were banned 32 years ago. Total worldwide PCB production was 1.3 million tons.

India also may be increasing its production of SCCPs, Boer said.

Although SCCPs are specifically defined as having a carbon backbone between 10 and 13 atoms long, there is still plenty of room for disagreement about which industrial products contain which chlorinated paraffins. The TSCA inventory, for example, does not distinguish between chlorinated paraffins of different carbon chain lengths.

Fensterheim said the companies believe the chemicals they use are already covered by the TSCA inventory, but the EPA disagrees.

Despite the inherent difficulties in studying the complex chemicals, Tomy said researchers need to keep monitoring their environmental levels and the toxicity to people and wildlife.

“I would like to believe in the coming years you are going to see more research,” he said.

New Report from Environment and Human Health, Inc: “LEED Certification Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health”

LEED Certification Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health, An EHHI Report

Breast Cancer, What Science Knows, What Women Think

Report Summary

Link to the Full Report

LEED Standards Are Being Adopted into Many Laws

Green Building Council standards are being incorporated into federal, state and local laws through legislation, executive orders, resolutions, policies, loan-granting criteria and tax credits. As demonstrated in this report, LEED standards are clearly insufficient to protect human health, yet they are being adopted by many levels of government as law. Thus the Green Building Council, a trade association for the building industry, is effectively structuring the regulations. The number of jurisdictions adopting these standards as law is growing, which will make them difficult if not impossible to change, unless federal law and regulation supersede the “green” standards with health-protective regulations.

No Federal Definition or Regulation of Green Building Standards

There is no federal definition of “green building standards” analogous to federal “organic food standards” or drinking water standards. Given regulatory neglect, many trade organizations have worked to create their own certification programs, hoping to capture growing demand for environmentally friendly and heath-protective buildings.

Energy Efficiency Given Priority Over Health

The LEED credit system is heavily weighted to encourage energy-efficient building performance. Nearly four times as many credits are awarded as energy conservation technologies and designs (35 possible credits) as for protection of indoor environmental quality from hazardous chemicals (8 possible credits).

Green Building Council Board Has Little Expertise in Environmental Health

Directors of the LEED Program are predominantly engineers, architects, developers, real estate executives, chemical industry officials and building product manufacturers. One medical doctor representing Physicians for Social Responsibility was recently appointed to sit on the board, which has 25 directors.

False Impression of Healthy Buildings

The Green Building Council’s award of “platinum,” “gold”, and “silver” status conveys the false impression of a healthy and safe building environment, even when well-recognized hazardous chemicals exist in building products.

Time Spent Indoors

Americans today are spending more than 90 percent of their time indoors. The EPA spends the majority of its resources working to manage outdoor threats to environmental quality and human health.

Tighter Buildings Increase Human Exposure

Energy conservation efforts have made buildings tighter, often reducing air exchange between the indoors and outdoors. Since outdoor air is often cleaner than indoor air, the reduction of outdoor-indoor exchange tends to concentrate particles, gases and other chemicals that can lead to more intense human exposures than would be experienced in better-ventilated environments.

However, the LEED program has been effective in encouraging more efficient heating and ventilation techniques, such as solar panels, geothermal wells, window placement and building orientation.

Toxic Chemicals in Built Environments

Tens of thousands of different building materials and products are now sold in global markets. Many of these products contain chemicals recognized by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the CDC, or the World Health Organization to be hazardous.

These products include pesticides, chemical components of plastics, flame retardants, metals, solvents, adhesives and stain-resistant applications.

Some are carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone mimics, reproductive toxins, developmental toxins, or chemicals that either stimulate or suppress the immune system.

Chemicals in Buildings Are Often Found in Human Tissues

The CDC began testing human tissues to determine the presence of some chemical ingredients of building materials. Most individuals whose tissues were tested carried dozens of these chemicals in their hair, blood or urine. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults. Chemicals released by building materials to indoor environments may be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

No Level of LEED Certification Assures Health Protection

It is possible for new construction to be certified at the “platinum” level with no credits awarded for air quality assurance in the category “indoor environmental quality.”

Link to the Full Report

Intelligent commentary on a ‘Green Chemistry’ standard.

Common Ground For Going Green

Effort to develop a chemical industry standard is driven by the need to share comparative data

Stephen K. Ritter

May 10, 2010
Volume 88, Number 19, pp. 38-41

Chemical companies large and small are eager to become greener. They want to be able to select greener starting materials and use cleaner chemical processes to make environmentally preferred products. But there are no authoritative marketplace criteria to identify green, greener, or greenest. And for those who think they are green, there’s uncertainty over the best way to communicate the supporting information.

The solution: Develop a comprehensive voluntary industry standard that enables everyone from raw material suppliers and manufacturers to retail consumers and policymakers to exchange common information in a standard format on the environmental performance of chemical products and processes.

Government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, some chemical companies, and large retailers such as Walmart and Carrefour have already set out to develop assessment tools and enhanced metrics to achieve that ideal. But so far, these efforts are specific for individual classes of chemicals or market segments such as home cleaning products (C&EN, Jan. 25, page 12). In addition, the efforts tend to focus more on the consumer and less on the business-to-business world, where most chemical companies operate.

“There is a hunger in the marketplace for reliable, consistent, compelling information on which to base greener, more sustainable choices,” says Neil C. Hawkins, Dow Chemical’s vice president of sustainability and environmental health and safety. “Chemical companies need a life-cycle view—greenhouse gases, water, energy, renewables, waste reduction, recyclability—that encompasses all parts of the supply chain,” he says. “A standard is needed that provides guidance on the different types of data required, who should be publishing the data, in what form, and in what quality, so that you end up with a robust decision-making apparatus that will allow businesses and consumers to make fair comparisons and better choices.”

To that end, the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) is spearheading an effort to create the Greener Chemical Products & Processes Standard. This standard will provide data to allow anyone to evaluate the relative environmental performance of chemical products and their manufacturing technologies.

Many green standards already exist and typically are highlighted by product ecolabels, notes GCI Director Robert Peoples. Those standards are usually issued by companies themselves, industry trade groups, or environment-focused nongovernmental organizations, he says. They tend to center on one or two attributes, such as volatile organic compound emissions or percent recycled content. In addition, the tools used to establish such standards focus on the final products but don’t include the manufacturing process.

“We are building a multiattribute, consensus-based standard with third-party verification that a company can certify against to say that it has a greener product or manufacturing process than a competing product or a technology that it aims to replace,” Peoples explains.

Nearly 60 participants, including stakeholders from chemical companies, academia, trade groups, federal and state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, are providing a balance of opinions to help establish the standard, he adds.

The process is being administered by NSF International, a global expert in standards development. The end goal is to have the standard issued by the American National Standards Institute. A draft of the standard is nearly complete and is expected to be released for public comment over the summer. The plan is to have final approval by the end of the year.

Peoples notes that the effort to develop the standard is drawing inspiration from green chemistry initiatives already in place. A primary example is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program, which encourages collaborative efforts between companies and environmental groups to screen chemicals and promote use of safer materials.

EPA staff develop DfE protocols for conducting screens of alternative chemicals based on threshold values for human and aquatic toxicity, bioaccumulation, persistence, and other parameters. Products that contain ingredients posing the least concern among chemicals in their class earn DfE certification and the right to use the DfE logo on the product label.

This strategy, known as “informed substitution,” is based on selecting chemical products that are fully assessed, have low hazard, and provide life-cycle benefits, notes Lauren G. Heine, science director at the virtual environmental nonprofit organization Clean Production Action. The goal of informed substitution is to move away from using the most hazardous chemicals, she says. Inherent in this model is an allowance for continual improvement by obtaining more data and a better understanding of what is greener and more sustainable over time.

The subscription online database CleanGredients is one business-to-business tool that uses DfE criteria to identify surfactants and solvents—and coming soon fragrances and chelating agents—that have optimal performance and environmental characteristics for making cleaning products. CleanGredients was created through a partnership between EPA and the nonprofit GreenBlue Institute, in Charlottesville, Va., where Heine previously worked.

CleanGredients encourages cleaning-product formulators to use greener chemicals and gives specialty chemical makers an opportunity to showcase their greener, safer products. Formulator companies don’t manufacture chemicals but instead purchase ingredients from chemical companies and then use proprietary recipes to mix them.

Even with tools such as CleanGredients, cleaning-product formulators spend a considerable amount of effort trying to analyze the properties of ingredients they want to use, “and they are feeling pretty challenged when they don’t have the resources of a large company like a Walmart,” notes Anne P. Wallin, Dow Chemical’s director of sustainable chemistry, who is participating in the GCI-led greener chemical standard-setting process. “They aren’t necessarily chemists, and they likely don’t have a toxicologist on their team. If we can give them reliable information in the form of a standard, it will be a huge leap forward for sustainability.”

Taking the CleanGredients model one step further is the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals, one of the tools developed by Heine and her colleagues at Clean Production Action.

Green Screen is the first open-source method to rank chemicals according to a comparative hazard assessment, Heine says. The screening tool goes beyond cleaning-product ingredients to evaluate all types of chemicals, which are categorized into one of four quantitative benchmarks, from “avoid—chemical of high concern” to “prefer—safer chemical.”

The benchmarks include hazard criteria that a chemical, its metabolites, and predicted breakdown products must pass, with a focus on the use and end-of-life phases, she adds. It also fills in data gaps with structure-activity relationship modeling data and expert judgment calls. Green Screen doesn’t include process or energy use information, but it can be applied to chemicals at any stage of the supply chain.

“Comparative hazard assessment tools are becoming an important piece of the sustainability puzzle,” Heine says. “People approach greening their chemical inventories by first moving away from chemicals of concern, perhaps driven by regulation. Once you start moving away from a known problem, you are pushed to the next level, where you have to consider more critically what is safer.”

Stakeholders working to frame the new Greener Chemical Products & Processes Standard are being informed by the best elements of initiatives such as CleanGredients and the Green Screen along with federal regulations as they generate the standard, notes GCI’s manager, Jennifer L. Young, who is representing the institute in the standards process.

The standard’s first phase, which is currently under development, covers individual chemicals and the processes to make them, Young explains. But it’s leaving out certain life-cycle elements such as sourcing raw materials and tracking the downstream use of the chemicals in making manufactured goods, an omission that’s caused some controversy among stakeholders.

Some of the stakeholders believe the standard should start out covering a chemical’s complete life cycle to understand its full environmental impact, from raw material extraction such as mining and oil and natural gas production to the end of a manufactured product’s lifetime and its recycling. The decision to move forward without those elements is not being taken lightly, Young emphasizes. But the effort required of companies to immediately go out and gather the new data, which many of them have never tracked before, would delay getting the standard implemented, she notes.

Looking past the scope of the standard, the framework includes multiple parameters in three primary categories: chemical characteristics, chemical processing, and social responsibility, Young says. The chemical characteristics category covers physical properties, human health effects, and environmental impacts. The chemical processing category includes water usage, treatment, and recycling data; efficiency of materials use with a focus on waste prevention; process safety; and energy use, Young explains. The third category, social responsibility, takes a look at global corporate practices such as adhering to labor laws and complying with regulations, she says.

Within the chemical characteristics category, there are three classification tiers based on hazard level and the amount of information available on a chemical, Young adds. The first tier includes chemical characteristics that are well studied and for which there are data determined by validated methods. A pesticide, for example, might require chronic ecological toxicity data from a 14-day test on earthworms with the results reported in milligrams per liter.

“Comparative hazard assessment tools are becoming an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.”

The second tier includes chemical characteristics that don’t have a lot of information and still may have cause for concern. In some cases, the data might not be available because the testing hasn’t been done, or they may not be provided by the manufacturer.

Young says the standard has to provide a balance between providing transparent but useful comparative information without giving away proprietary information. But data that are withheld because they’re considered confidential will be treated as missing data, she notes, which could lower the value of the chemical in the standard’s hierarchy and possibly prevent the chemical from gaining certification.

The third tier includes chemical characteristics that are new, considered to be problematic, or have little or no data, Young notes. For example, no one knows yet if some types of nanomaterials could pose a problem or not, she says. The standard makes no provision for requiring disclosure of these characteristics.

Some stakeholders are eager for the standard to provide a rating index or points system for ranking chemicals, Young says. Such a system would identify the “greenest” chemical in a class of compounds and provide a reference point for a company to gauge its progress in improving the chemical’s profile over time. But the initial version of the standard will leave it up to users to make their own comparisons, she says.

In addition, some members of the stakeholder group are dismayed that the standard is reactionary, rather than proactive, when it comes to addressing endocrine disruption, which is currently a polarized issue in science. Endocrine disrupters typically are man-made chemicals in the environment. They mimic hormones and can disrupt the endocrine system, potentially leading to negative health effects. Although scientists understand that people are susceptible to the effects of endocrine disrupters, it’s still unclear to what degree and under which conditions, and EPA is just beginning a long-delayed screening program (C&EN, Oct. 26, 2009, page 7).

Validated tests and models to understand dose-response relationships in endocrine disruption are still being optimized. As a result, data on endocrine disrupters are not initially required for the standard, Young notes. However, if endocrine-disrupter characteristics are associated with a chemical, the expectation is that the manufacturer will report that information to the customer. In a qualitative way, knowing that a chemical has been fingered as a potential endocrine disrupter could help a user make a judgment, she adds.

Because the majority of truly green chemicals and chemical products haven’t yet been invented, these criticisms point to a concern that setting a standard now could dilute the science of green chemistry by creating a “good enough” threshold. The concerned scientists say that such a threshold might allow chemicals that meet minimum qualifications to be certified, making it seem acceptable for some intrinsically dangerous chemicals to continue to be used, particularly if the standard is used to guide regulatory decisions. Given that possibility, some members of the green chemistry community have suggested that the word “greener” be struck from the standard’s title.

“Standards-making is messy,” Dow’s Wallin says. “You are trying to get a broad group of stakeholders together with a diverse set of viewpoints to find some middle ground and build on it. The need and the potential for a standard are both tremendous, and it is definitely worth the effort. It will be very powerful if we can work through all these issues and create a standard that the whole group can get behind.”

The science of sustainability and green chemistry is rapidly evolving, GCI’s Peoples adds. He emphasizes that just because someone initially certifies a product or process against the standard, it doesn’t mean it’s 100% green. “We need to revise and improve the standard over time,” Peoples says. “That means tightening the requirements and recognizing innovation as new science and technology are developed.”

A natural question asked about green chemistry and developing screening tools and standards is whether or not they can make a difference in the chemical marketplace. It’s still early in the sustainability game, but Peoples points to SC Johnson‘s Greenlist as a harbinger of success for the new green standard.

SC Johnson is the maker of many familiar brands of home cleaning, storage, and pest-control products, including Pledge and Windex surface cleaners, Ziploc storage bags and containers, and Raid insecticides. In 2001, the company created Greenlist with EPA’s backing as a methodology to rate the ingredients that make up its products. For Greenlist, environment and human health data are included alongside performance criteria and cost in the company’s chemical formulary, an index of ingredients that scientists use when designing products. The materials are rated 0 for restricted use, 1 for acceptable, 2 for better, and 3 for best.

When the program started in 2001, 18% of listed materials were rated better or best. The most recent data reveal that this number has climbed to 47%. But more critically, the zero-rated restricted-use materials have dropped from 10% to 2% of the total.

At first, SC Johnson had to challenge its suppliers to create better rated chemicals, according to the study. Now, the shoe is on the other foot; companies are designing new chemicals based on Greenlist criteria and are pitching them to SC Johnson to add to the formulary.

After the greener chemical standard is approved, communicating the information behind the certification will move to the forefront, Peoples says. One outcome could be an ecolabel that can be used on packaging for products made with certified ingredients. Individual chemicals don’t lend themselves to having an ecolabel because they are bought and sold mostly in bulk, he adds. Thus product documentation akin to a food nutrition label or a graphical label that shows sustainability attributes could be appropriate. For the business-to-business marketplace, information sheets and online reports for certified chemicals might be a format for communicating the standard’s supporting information, Peoples says.

“The importance of the standard-setting process is that we and our families are all inhabitants of this planet,” Peoples observes. “We don’t want to have problems with the quality of the water we drink or the air we breathe. But at the same time, we need to compromise and be creative,” he says. “There are billions or trillions of dollars of capital sunk into the ground in the chemical enterprise. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t wave a magic wand and suddenly replace it tomorrow with pure green chemistry. It will take time to increase the level of awareness about the standard and decades to transition. But we need to agree now on a path forward and start taking our first steps.”

More On This Story

Green Chemistry Metric: iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index v2.0

The iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index is a tool which provides a methodology to generate a sustainability-based score for chemical products and processes. It contains a set of sustainability metrics based on the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry* and takes into account such factors as waste generation, energy usage, health and environmental impact of raw materials and products, safety of processing steps, and others.

To use the iSUSTAIN™ Index, the user generates a scenario. The scenario contains information on the materials going into a process (the Bill of Materials In or BOM In), the materials out of a process (the product and any waste streams – the Bill of Materials Out or BOM Out) and the conditions used for the various steps in a process (the Process Steps). Several alternative scenarios can be generated for the same product/process, making changes within them to evaluate their effect on the overall sustainability score, thus allowing the user to do a “what-if” analysis.

The internet-based version of the iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index was developed with two goals in mind:

  • Afford a measure of the sustainability for products/processes to both develop an initial sustainability baseline and provide guidance for process improvement
  • Act as a learning tool for the scientific community to provide increased familiarity with the Twelve Principles of Green chemistry and help scientists gain an appreciation of the factors within their control that can affect the overall sustainability of their processes

The iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index has been developed through an alliance between Cytec Industries Inc., a sustainability-minded specialty chemicals and materials company; Sopheon, a leading provider of software and services for product lifecycle management; and Beyond Benign, a non-profit organization dedicated to green chemistry education and training.

President’s Cancer Panel Report (National Cancer Institute) links environmental toxics to cancer; strongly endorses Green Chemistry

President’s Cancer Panel: Environmentally caused cancers are ‘grossly underestimated’ and ‘needlessly devastate American lives.’

“The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,” says the President’s Cancer Panel in a strongly reported report that urges action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens. The panel today advised President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Chemicals and contaminants might trigger cancer by various means.

By Marla Cone
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
May 6, 2010

The President’s Cancer Panel on Thursday reported that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.

The panel advised President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

The 240-page report by the President’s Cancer Panel is the first to focus on environmental causes of cancer. The panel, created by an act of Congress in 1971, is charged with monitoring the multi-billion-dollar National Cancer Program and reports directly to the President every year.

Environmental exposures “do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program,” the panel said in its letter to Obama that precedes the report. “The American people even before they are born are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”

The panel, appointed by President Bush, told President Obama that the federal government is missing the chance to protect people from cancer by reducing their exposure to carcinogens. In its letter, the panel singled out bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic and can linings that is unregulated in the United States, as well as radon, formaldehyde and benzene.

“The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm.” – Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., chair of the President’s Cancer PanelEnvironmental health scientists were pleased by the findings, saying it embraces everything that they have been saying for years.

Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health and one of the nation’s leading cancer epidemiologists, called the report “a call to action.”

Environmental and occupational exposures contribute to “tens of thousands of cancer cases a year,” Clapp said. “If we had any calamity that produced tens of thousands of deaths or serious diseases, that’s a national emergency in my view.”

The two-member panel Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., a professor of surgery at Howard University and Margaret Kripke, a professor at University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center – was appointed by President Bush to three-year terms.

Lefall and Kripke concluded that action is necessary, even though in many cases there is scientific uncertainty about whether certain chemicals cause cancer. That philosophy, called the precautionary principle, is highly controversial among scientists, regulators and industry.

“The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm,” Lefall, who is chair of the panel, said in a statement.

The two panelists met with nearly 50 medical experts in late 2008 and early 2009 before writing their report to the president. Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong previously served on the panel, but did not work on this year’s report.

In 2007, 69 million CT scans were performed.

The report recommends raising consumer awareness of the risks posed by chemicals in food, air, water and consumer products, bolstering research of the health effects and tightening regulation of chemicals that might cause cancer or other diseases.

They also urged doctors to use caution in prescribing CT scans and other medical imaging tests that expose patients to large amounts of radiation.  In 2007, 69 million CT scans were performed, compared with 18 million in 1993. Patients who have a chest CT scan receive a dose of radiation in the same range as survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attacks who were less than half a mile from ground zero, the report says.

The panel also criticized the U.S. military, saying that “it is a major source of toxic occupational and environmental exposures that can increase cancer risk.” Examples cited include Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where carcinogenic solvents contaminate drinking water, and Vietnam veterans with increased lymphomas, prostate cancer and other cancers from thier exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.

Overall cancer rates and deaths have declined in the United States. Nevertheless, about 41 percent of all Americans still will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, and about 21 percent will die from it, according to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER Cancer Statistics Review. In 2009 alone, about 1.5 million new cases were diagnosed.

For the past 30 years, federal agencies and institutes have estimated that environmental pollutants cause about 2 percent of all cancers and that occupational exposures may cause 4 percent.
Patients who have a chest CT scan receive a dose of radiation in the same range as survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attacks who were less than half a mile from ground zero. But the panel called those estimates “woefully out of date.” The panel criticized regulators for using them to set environmental regulations and lambasted the chemical industry for using them “to justify its claims that specific products pose little or no cancer risk.”
The report said the outdated estimates fail to take into account many newer discoveries about people’s vulnerability to chemicals. Many chemicals interact with each other, intensifying the effect, and some people have a genetic makeup or early life exposure that makes them susceptible to environmental contaminants.
“It is not known exactly what percentage of all cancers either are initiated or promoted by an environmental trigger,” the panel said in its report. “Some exposures to an environmental hazard occur as a single acute episode, but most often, individual or multiple harmful exposures take place over a period of weeks, months, year, or a lifetime.”
Boston University’s Clapp was one of the experts who spoke to the panel in 2008. “We know enough now to act in ways that we have not done…Act on what we know,” he told them.
“There are lots of places where we can move forward here. Lots of things we can act on now,” such as military base cleanups and reducing use of CT scans, Clapp said in an interview.
Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, called the report an “integrated and comprehensive critique.” He was glad that the panel underscored that regulatory agencies should reduce exposures even when absolute proof of harm was unavailable.
Scientists are divided on whether there is a link between cell phones and cancer.
Also, “they recognized that exposures happen in mixtures, not in isolation” and that children are most vulnerable.
“Some people are disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable,” said Schettler, whose group was founded by environmental groups to urge the use of science to address public health issues related to the environment.
Schettler said it “took courage” for the panel to warn physicians about the cancer risk posed by CT scans, particularly for young children.

“It’s almost become routine for kids with abdominal pain to get a CT scan” to check for appendicitis, he said. Although the scans may lead to fewer unnecessary surgeries, doctors should consider the high doses of radiation. “I’m very glad this panel took that on,” Schettler said.

Another sensitive issue raised in the report was the risk of brain cancer from cell phones. Scientists are divided on whether there is a link.

Until more research is conducted, the panel recommended that people reduce their usage by making fewer and shorter calls, using hands-free devices so that the phone is not against the head and refraining from keeping a phone on a belt or in a pocket.

Even if cell phones raise the risk of cancer slightly, so many people are exposed that “it could be a large public health burden,” Schettler said.

The panel listed a variety of carcinogenic compounds that many people routinely encounter. Included are benzene and other petroleum-based pollutants in vehicle exhaust, arsenic in water supplies, chromium from plating companies, formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets and other plywood, bisphenol A in plastics and canned foods, tetrachloroethylene at dry cleaners, PCBs in fish and other foods and various pesticides.

Chemicals and contaminants might trigger cancer by a variety of means. They can damage DNA, disrupt hormones, inflame tissues, or turn genes on or off.

“Some types of cancer are increasing rapidly,” Clapp said, including thyroid, kidney and liver cancers. Others, including lung and breast cancer, have declined.

Previous reports by the President’s Cancer Panel have focused largely on treatment and more well-known causes of cancer such as diet or smoking.
The panel criticized regulators and industry for using “woefully outdated” estimates of environmentally caused cancers to set regulations and “to justify its claims that specific products pose little or no cancer risk.”Some experts are concerned that the report might just sit on a shelf at the White House. But Clapp said the findings are so strongly stated that he is confident the report will be useful to some policymakers, legislators and groups that want tougher occupational health standards or other regulations.
“We’re not going to get any better than this,” Clapp said. “This goes farther than what I thought the President’s Cancer Panel would go. I’m pleased that they went as far as they did.”
Environmental health scientists said they hope the report raises not just the President’s awareness of environmental threats, but the public’s, since most people are unaware of the dangers.
“This report has stature,” Schettler said. “It is a report that goes directly to the president.”
PDF of the original report.