Various issues this week have caught my eye. I get e-mails from various environmental and social activist organizations, which helps me keep abreast of what issues are “hot” at the moment. One was about how groups have long been lobbying NIH (the National Institutes of Health) to list formaldehyde as a carcinogen, but had to wait until plutocrat David Koch (who’s been living with prostate cancer for 20 years) stepped down from their cancer board to do it. Georgia-Pacific is one of the Koch brothers’ companies, and pressed-wood products use formaldehyde as a preservative.
Well, formaldehyde has been classed as a carcinogen (for nasal cancer) by NIOSH and OSHA forever, so it’s at least regulated in the workplace. (NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, a research-only body whose findings OSHA reviews when writing their regulations.) I’m not sure what the NIH listing is going to accomplish. If the Consumer Product Safety Commission got involved, then we might see some changes, since the chemical is used in plywood, particle-board furniture, carpet backing, and more.
I’ve been meaning to write about the proposed Chemical Safety Act from Sen. Frank Lautenberg. It’s supposed to make the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) more effective and less dependent on industry-provided data. That’s not how TSCA is supposed to work, though. TSCA (and FIFRA for pesticides) is set up so that EPA can review chemicals already on the market and restrict their usage or ban them outright if warranted. For new chemicals, manufacturers are supposed to conduct a PMN, or Pre-Manufacture Notice, which consists of toxicology tests. This normally involves animal testing, because there aren’t many willing human volunteers lining up for that sort of thing. There have been improvements in tests on tissue cultures, and molecular modeling on computers, to estimate toxicity, but they haven’t become the standard yet, partly because they aren’t as good — so far — at determining systemic effects. I dislike animal testing, but how else do we find out how bad a chemical is compared to others? Test it on prisoners, like Japan did in WWII? As the science improves, we can get away from that moral dilemma. It’s unrealistic to think that 6 billion people can switch to all-natural, no-artificial stuff, overnight if ever, and I could shrivel your short hairs with a laundry list of very nasty naturally-occurring toxins if you really want a scare.
Anyway, the EPA is supposed to review the submitted PMN info, and duplicate the tests in their labs to see if they agree or not. Part of the problem is that the chemical industry invents new ones faster than the agency can test them, and then there’s always that pesky budget thing to consider. It could be that they just analyze a random sampling of the new compounds? Like the USDA inspecting incoming foodstuffs from outside the U.S.? I haven’t looked at the proposed bill, but if it requires EPA to test all the new stuff, well, talk is cheap but whiskey costs money. I can hear the whiners ranting about unfunded mandates again. The thing is, the short attention-span public wants to be protected from EVERYTHING, but they don’t want to pay for ANYTHING. There ain’t no free lunch, folks.
Last on this morning’s list is good ol’ wetlands. I got something the other day from the Natural Resources Defense Council on this issue. In part, the e-mail read:
A pair of Supreme Court decisions and Bush administration policies implementing those decisions have resulted in chaos and confusion about whether and to what extent various wetlands and headwater streams are protected. As a result, approximately 20 percent of the wetlands in the continental United States have been essentially cut out of the law, and more than 117 million Americans currently get some or all of their drinking water from sources that do not have clear protection under the Clean Water Act.
The e-mail then urges readers to click to submit a public comment to EPA and the Corps of Engineers, due by July 1st, because:
To rectify this situation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced draft guidelines, which would be far more protective than existing policies, for identifying waters covered by the Clean Water Act. These guidelines would ensure that the law’s pollution control programs apply to more critical wetlands and streams, which have been inadequately protected or denied protection altogether for much of the last decade. In addition, the agencies plan to improve their regulations to more permanently protect a number of these waterways. Unsurprisingly, however, the proposals are being attacked by industries covered by the law, including developers and oil, gas and mining companies.
First of all, drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The “Clean Water Act,” technically the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, covers wastewater treatment standards, in other words, how clean wastewater and sewage has to be before it can be discharged to waters of the U.S.
Second, it’s always struck me as odd that Congress put EPA and the Corps in joint charge of this program; they make for strange bedfellows. The Corps caught a lot of flak during the huge 1993 floods along the entire course of the Mississippi, which I saw firsthand here in St. Louis. Their management of levees and locks & dams was also criticized during Katrina, and is under fire again with the massive flooding following the recent spate of tornadoes in the Midwest and deep South.
Third, guidelines are just that, guidelines. They’re not enforceable. The above text only says that they “plan” to improve their regulations (regs ARE enforceable). Guidelines don’t sound like much of a reason for big industry to be panicking, but it’s fashionable to be unreasonable in that crowd.
Fourth, I’m not familiar with the Supreme Court cases or the Bush II administration’s use of them, but what I do know is that during Bush I’s tenure, George H.W. had the Corps put the entire wetlands program in mothballs; it was supposed to be “temporary.” He used his own scare tactics, saying that if a pothole in a farmer’s dirt road had water in it for more than three days per year, it constituted a protected wetland, and oh, how intrusive that big government is! What was supposed to happen is that the Corps and the EPA were to sit down at the drawing board and come up with new definitions that were more “rational.” Yes, regulations can be over-interpreted — or under-interpreted. They tend to write them with a bit of gray area included to allow for some flexibility; this can be abused, but can also come in very handy sometimes and benefit all parties involved.
Anyway, the “back to the drawing-board” directive to EPA and the Corps regarding wetlands definitions was 22 years ago. Nary a peep from the agencies yet. Similarly, when the EPA/OSHA standards came out for lead paint abatement (HUD coming onboard a tad later), it was realized that residential abatement, which was the focus, is a whole different ball of wax from the industrial type, which mainly involves exterior paint on steel or concrete structures, so EPA and OSHA were supposed to sit down and come up with standards for that type of work. We’ve been waiting 16 years so far. I really think they do count on our short attention spans, but I don’t forget or give up. My résumé already covers regulatory consulting, historical property research, professional training, sample collection, and cleanup activities; I should probably update it to include “gadfly.”