What if ... you had been manufacturing a product, successfully, profitably, for a while, and then ... studies start to indicate that your product is toxic in the long term. (We'll assume that if it were toxic in the short term, you would have noticed and stopped manufacture.)
It's not that unusual a story. Everyone knows how long it took to figure out that cigarettes were deeply toxic. In this 1930 ad reproduced in a 2008 New York Times article, the headline reads: "20,679 Physicians Say 'Luckies are less irritating' [because] 'it's toasted'". I mean, Yikes.
What's more disturbing is how viciously Big Tobacco fought the scientific evidence that pointed out smoking's dangers. As early as the 1940s, evidence was accumulating that smoking was a significant cause of cancer. And that evidence was well-known and acknowledged within the tobacco companies, even as they resisted all efforts to limit their advertising and marketing claims. (Click here for a long, but fascinating / depressing, 2002 article from the BMJ, "Failed promises of the cigarette industry and its effect on consumer misperceptions about the health risks of smoking")
It's easy for us, from this distance, to say what the tobacco companies should have done.
What about plastics companies today? Not to mention pesticide companies, toy companies, cosmetics companies, and others.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a question today: "What are the lessons from years of lead poisoning?" (Full column, here) The lead industry, like the tobacco industry, fought long and hard the efforts to regulate and limit consumer exposure to lead (in paint, in gasoline, etc.). And Kristof considers the chemical industry to be today's lead industry.
His concerns are focused on "endocrine disruptors", chemicals that mimic the body's own hormones. They're found in everything. While there is still debate about how much damage these chemicals cause, there's little debate that they cause some. Kristof quotes from a 2012 World Health Organization / United Nations report:
Exposure to EDC's [Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals] during fetal development and puberty plays a role in the increased incidences of reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, behavioral and learning problems, including ADHD, infections, asthma, and perhaps obesity and diabetes in humans.
The WHO is concerned that
Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion. However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects in intact organisms.
Really? In fact, "The vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all."
Kristof notes that the chemical industry "spent $55 million lobbying last year, twice the figure a decade earlier". So don't expect these chemicals to be more heavily regulated any time soon.
The battle is a sneaky one, too, in part because no one knows exactly how dangerous these chemicals are. Kristof notes,
This summer 18 scientists wrote a scathing letter railing against European Union regulations of endocrine disruptors. That underscored the genuine scientific uncertainty about risks -- until Environmental Health News showed that 17 of the 18 have conflicts of interests, such as receiving money from the chemical industry. Meanwhile, more than 140 other scientists followed up with their own open letters denouncing the original 18 and warning that endocrine disruptors do indeed constitute a risk.
Me, I'd rather that chemicals were regulated first, until we were sure that they're safe (within whatever reasonable boundaries you want to use as the definition of "safe", since of course nothing is 100% safe under all circumstances). But that's not going to happen here.
But what to do when scientists are themselves uncertain? Kristof wonders, too, and writes:
But I'm struck that many experts in endocrinology, toxicology or pediatrics aren't waiting for regulatory changes. They don't heat food in plastic containers, they reduce their use of plastic water bottles, and they try to give their kids organic foods to reduce exposure to pesticides.So I, too, am tossing the plastic containers, drinking my water from the tap, and continuing to spend a little more for organic.
But I'm especially struck by Kristof's closing question to the big chemical companies: "Are you really going to follow the model of tobacco and lead and fight regulation every step of the way, once more risking our children's futures?"
Well, are you?