Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Well, we're better off than in the '70s right?

Toxicology fascinates me, and I love passing that fascination on to students eager to learn about how chemical contaminants impact their environment, and what they can do about it. But it’s a difficult science to teach to undergraduates. It’s hard not to talk about environmental contaminants without the doom and gloom. Particularly this semester, when I’ve decided to run a new course, introducing students to emerging contaminants, by having them investigate and write - for this site and others - about what they’ve discovered.

Because really, there’s nothing “new” or “emerging” about these chemicals, except that we’re now aware of their existence in the environment, and in us.
As most of my students now know, many of these contaminants have been around for decades. Some were never regulated; some were regulated, but ended up contaminating land and water across the country anyway; some, have taken environmental scientists and regulators by complete surprise.

“How do you not get depressed?” asked one student, head in hands, slouching into the desktop.

“Well,” I reply, “we’re a lot better off than we were back in the ‘70s.”

Whoa, did I really say that?! The ‘70s? Do I have to harken back to the 1970’s to make us look OK now? A time when many environmental regulations were new, and couldn’t help but improve the condition of air, water and land?

I can relate to my students' sense of loss. It’s like having the rug pulled out from under. We all want to believe that all the regulations and regulatory agencies that serve to protect us from harmful chemicals really are effective. And, for the most part they are, and we are better off for it. But these emerging chemicals are more insidious. For decades many of these chemicals have contaminated food, water, us – in part because they were beyond the reaches of the analytical chemist. No one knew they were there - although some might have been predicted to be a problem, others were thought to degrade, break apart into harmless products.

But now, with improved techniques we know that we are not only stardust, but we’re synthetic chemicals as well.

So I point out that there’s hope. I say that even though PFOA and PFOS, which belong to a class of perfluorinated contaminants, were a big regulatory “whoops,” they now are undergoing the appropriate scrutiny, and within a fairly short timeframe, scientists have begun to measure their decline in the environment.

Shortly after that discussion, I sent the students off to investigate their favorite “emerging contaminant.”

Now I’m depressed.

Of the seven different “emerging contaminants” they chose to investigate, four of them, Pthalates, Atrazine, PBDEs, and Nitro-musks are banned by the European Union. But here in the United States? All four are still legal. (OK, California recently banned pthalates and many states have issued bans on specific PBDEs .)

As Mark Schapiro, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reveals in his book Exposed , the differences in chemical regulation between the U.S., once an environmental leader, and the EU the rapidly emerging new leader are vast, and like the universe, rapidly expanding.

“All this makes me want to move to Europe,” commented one student, or maybe California.

1 comment:

Princess07ish said...

No we're not because things were simpler, carefree, fun and everyone acted human and not like robots.