Which way forward for toxics advocates? A PSR interview with Ted Schettler
What is the most important action that toxics advocates can take in the coming year or years to create a cleaner, healthier world? It’s a great question and I actually think I’m not smart enough to know what the most important action is. I’m always a little reluctant to pick one out as a priority, because I think there are multiple avenues for addressing the problems of toxic chemicals in the environment and I think all of those avenues have merit and are helpful. So, if it were the case that one particular strategy or activity would be a game-changer above and beyond all others, I don’t know what it is.
But I generally think that when there are multiple opportunities, it’s a good idea to support work on all of them, and to look at leverage points where there are intersections that might serve to magnify efforts. I see merit in federal policy reform. I see merit in the work that is going on at the state level, both in terms of improving conditions in the state but also adding to the drumbeat for federal policy reform. And I also see a lot of merit in market campaigns, because ultimately what we’re trying to do is to help transform the material economy toward safer materials and products. I actually think that regulatory reform, as important as it is, is a necessary response to mistakes that we have made and to design problems. If we go upstream and think about designing safer chemicals, materials, and products, we begin to diminish the need for strict regulations, when we really are designing safer materials. So I think there is room for all of this.
PSR: Some argue that the top issue is federal policy reform, specifically reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, TSCA. What do we make of the fact that, important as that work is, the bill has been introduced repeatedly and isn’t getting passed?
Schettler: Reform is inevitable at some point because there is growing support for it. The question is what the timing will be and what ultimate reform will look like. I think not only public health advocates but also the industry to a large extent agrees that there needs to be reform of TSCA. It’s the major environmental law that hasn’t been reformed since it was passed, back in 1976. We’re reminded on a regular basis of what its deficiencies are. So I think reform is inevitable but I think the problem we’re up against is we’re in a political context where other things can get in the way of meaningful reform. This being an election year is just one more example. The bill, Safe Chemicals Act, is likely to be reintroduced in the Senate this year, but it’s anybody’s guess what its fate will be.
PSR: What work are you prioritizing for the coming year?
Schettler: In toxics work I’m working on several fronts. In Health Care Without Harm, for example, I work with the safer chemicals work group. As part of our work we’re supporting TSCA reform. But we are also working on a market campaign and with health care institutions interested in transitioning to safer materials. We work at a fairly detailed level with some of them and at a higher, overarching framing level with others to actually transform their purchasing practices. It’s a combination of policy reform and market-based work.
I’m also very interested in some of the recommendations that came out of the National Academy of Science’s recent report called “Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment.” For a number of years now I’ve been thinking much more about what I call a complexity model or an eco-social model. The idea is that chemicals both alone and in combination are acting in a much more complex set of circumstances than we commonly acknowledge. We’re dealing with people who are exposed to chemicals who might have underlying health issues; people who have varying nutritional circumstances, where their diet and nutritional status might make them more or less susceptible to impacts from toxic chemical exposures; we’re dealing with variability in social circumstances which similarly can alter effects of toxic chemical exposures. The National Academy of Sciences has said we need to really think about doing risk assessments of chemicals by taking into account the multiple chemical exposures and the underlying circumstances that might make people part of a vulnerable subgroup. I’m completely supportive of that and try to weave that into my work as frequently as I can, because I think that this ecological model or this complexity model better represents the real world we live in.
PSR: Do you see new issues coming down the pike that we should be preparing to address in the next few years?
Schettler: The fact that we’re exposed to multiple chemicals, as we know from so many biomonitoring studies, means that we really need to take to heart the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences that urge risk assessments to be done in the context of multiple chemical exposures. It’s very difficult and challenging to the research community, and very expensive as well. NIEHS is increasingly tending to look at that, but it gets complicated very quickly when you start to mix chemicals together. But that’s what’s going on in the real world. This is a new issue, not brand new by any means, but it’s one that’s getting increasing support and we need to look at it more carefully in future research.
There are also some new technologies coming online that are going to be helpful. For example, take a look at the National Academy’s report called “Toxicity Testing in 21st Century.” It is an analysis of the size of the challenge but also the new technologies that are available for screening chemicals prior to putting them through very expensive animal assays. There are some new technologies that will probably be useful in combination with laboratory animal assays to help us screen and prioritize problematic chemicals. That’s an area that is underway. I also think there’s an opportunity there for advocacy organizations to keep pressure on the regulatory agencies and also the research arms of government agencies like NIH and NIEHS and of course at the academic level, universities, to keep pushing in this direction.
PSR: What research do you think most urgently needs to be funded?
We ought to be doing more of the basic research on chemical toxicity with variability in the nutritional background introduced into the testing protocols. After all, we’re getting our information about the toxicity of chemicals in the laboratory and not from epidemiological studies — from studying the effect of the chemical in mice or rats, but they’re all being raised with a very nutritious diet, and all of the other variables like light and dark cycles, housing and all of that are held constant. That’s the way research is commonly done, but it really doesn’t reflect the real-world circumstances that people live in. I’ve argued for a long time that we ought to be thinking about varying the nutritional status of the mice by feeding them different diets, because it modifies the effects of the different chemicals. There are some basic researchers who are doing that kind of thing in their own labs, but it’s not routine by any measure. There are some interesting surprises that show up when you vary the nutritional background and then expose the animals to toxic chemicals.
We’re seeing this happening more and more in epidemiologic research – epidemiologists are increasingly aware that you need more complex models for doing studies of human populations to see how nutritional or social circumstances influence the effect of exposure to environmental chemicals.
PSR: What most gives you hope that the toxics movement – its findings, research, advocacy – is making or can make meaningful progress? What makes you hopeful about the future – and how hopeful are you?
Schettler: There are a number of other pressing problems, along with toxic chemicals, that raise and lower hope… like, for example, global climate change and associated issues that have to do with refugee status and violence in the world and so on, that vie for attention and push and pull at the hope button. But in the realm of toxics, I think there are some examples from the past where we can see how taking action on certain dangerous chemicals has had public health benefits.
We know that banning lead in gasoline, as an example, actually made a difference in terms of kids’ lead levels. You see evidence where statewide campaigns and pressure from advocacy groups has led to the replacement of a number of dangerous chemicals. The problem of course has been that sometimes they are replaced either by chemicals whose toxicity is unknown, or that might even be more dangerous. I think this recent series of articles in the Chicago Tribune that was addressing flame retardants shows exactly what we’re up against and what the advocates for particular families of chemicals are willing to do to keep their products on the market. In this case it was pure “tobacco science,” both literally and figuratively, where people from the world of tobacco advocacy and advertising were brought in to support these dangerous chemicals, and they used fraudulent means to do it. One would hope that the results that flow from this series in the Tribunemight help raise public awareness.