Trying to make the unacceptable acceptable: New books by Dan Fagin and Sarah Vogel illuminate our flawed history of controlling chemical hazards

By Elizabeth Grossman

An anecdote related in Dan Fagin’s compelling new book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, that tells the heartbreaking and infuriating history of how chemical industry pollution devastated that New Jersey community, points to one of the biggest flaws in our regulatory system’s approach to protecting people from toxics. In 1986, during a public meeting of the Ocean County Board of Health – Ocean County is home to Toms River, where the Ciba chemical company began manufacturing dye chemicals in the 1950s – an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official attempting to explain why Ciba-Geigy would not have to clean up all of the groundwater it had contaminated was interrupted by a community member who said, “What I really think you’re trying to do…is make the unacceptable acceptable.”

“What you’re trying to say,” he continued, is “Don’t worry about it. There will be one case of cancer in a million, and that person who gets it is someone you don’t know. He’s not a neighbor. He doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t have friends. He’s just an isolated incident and that’s the guy that’s going to get poisoned and going to get cancer. But you don’t look around the audience and say it could happen to you or to your child.”

By then Ciba had, over the course of several decades, dumped millions of gallons of toxic chemical-laden wastewater daily into local ground and surface waters – the same water sources that provided drinking water to Toms River households. The company had also, for decades, been dumping untreated toxic chemical sludge into the community’s porous soils. Local landfills and a nearby farm property became the repository for huge numbers of leaky barrels filled with poisonous waste. By the mid-1980s, dozens of Ocean County children had been diagnosed with cancer, including leukemia and brain and nervous system cancers. Many had died.

It had taken years for the community or any outside experts to begin to investigate whether Ciba’s toxic waste (making dye chemicals produced far more waste than finished product) might be affecting community members’ – or company workers’ – health. When the pollution came to light, as it did through a ruptured pipe, stinky tap water and the discovery of illegal waste dumping, Toms River families wanted answers. Those whose children had cancer knew they were on the wrong end of statistics.

Fagin, a prize-winning environmental journalist and New York University journalism professor, expertly tells the story of the search for links between the chemical pollution – which included numerous well known carcinogens – and the Toms River children’s cancers. To explain how Ciba-Geigy, a company whose roots go back centuries to the birth of the synthetic chemical dye industry, came to be using such toxic chemicals, and how we have come to understand their toxicity, Fagin deftly weaves into the New Jersey narrative, the history of the dye industry. He also delves into toxicology and epidemiology to explore how we regulate industrial pollution and its effects on public health.

A poster child for regulatory dysfunction
Read Toms River in tandem with another excellent new book, Sarah Vogel’s Is It Safe: BPA and the Struggle to Define the Safety of Chemicals, and you come away with a detailed and disheartening understanding of why this system so often fails to adequately protect human health. Vogel, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s environmental health program, uses bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins used in countless consumer products including food containers and food packaging, as the lens through which to examine why US chemicals policy is struggling to keep up with environmental health science and how it has become dysfunctional when it comes to making decisions about chemical safety.

Scientists have identified BPA as an endocrine disrupting chemical capable of prompting numerous potentially adverse health effects at very low levels of exposure, and researchers have found it in more than 90% of Americans’ tested.  BPA has also become something of a poster-child for the tug-of-war between industry-generated and academic science. Vogel’s illuminating account takes us back to the origins of the United States’ attempts to regulate carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate food. It shows that while our scientific understanding of synthetic chemicals’ interaction with living cells has advanced enormously not much has changed over the past 50 years in the chemical industry’s approach to government regulation of its products or the government’s reluctance to make decisions that could be labeled anti-business.

Chemical industry trade associations maintain that BPA is safe and criticize the science or decision-making processes that suggest otherwise. This response, Vogel demonstrates, is disconcertingly similar to what happened in the 1950s when industry sought to and succeeded in whittling away the federal government’s power to eliminate carcinogens from food and food-contact products.

Continuing the story David Michaels chronicled in Doubt is their Product and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway illustrated in Merchants of Doubt, Vogel shows us that doubt-production is still in full swing. What makes her history so interesting is its examination of how the whole regulatory system with which we are now saddled has been shaped by these forces. BPA, as an endocrine disrupting chemical that can interact with exceptionally sensitive cellular receptors and produce effects at low levels of exposure and either very different or no effects at higher levels, is a challenge to traditional toxicology that assumes dose and effect have a linear relationship. Add to this the fact that chemicals like BPA can produce adverse health effects that may take years to manifest and effects that depend on timing as well as level of exposure. All are inherent challenges for a regulatory system built around setting safe exposure levels determined by risk assessments that include assumptions of acceptable risk.

Ongoing health consequences
This, in the end, is what the Toms River families confronted as they pursued answers to exactly which chemicals might be responsible for the cancers. While Ciba had dumped incalculably large amounts of carcinogenic chemicals into the local environment, ultimately pinpointed as a likely culprit was an obscure mixture of styrene and acrylonitrile dumped not by Ciba, but in illegally discarded Union Carbide barrels that had leaked into groundwater. Was that chemical definitively responsible for sickening Toms River children?  No one will ever know for sure. Did other toxic chemicals also play a role in these children’s diseases? It’s likely, but again, no one will ever know for sure. Fagin’s account of these toxicological and epidemiological forensics is dramatic and eloquent.

What we also don’t and will probably never will know is how workers at Ciba’s Toms River plant were affected by occupational exposure to these toxic chemicals. Dye industry chemicals are well known to be associated with cancer, and Fagin weaves this history into his narrative. He also shows why it’s proven so difficult to definitively connect occupational exposure with adverse health effects suffered by workers – or to prove a cancer cluster – particularly if that data is destined for a court of law, a history that continues to this day for all too many people.

While the Toms River families’ case against Ciba was eventually settled and that factory closed, the story is not over. The dye industry is now running full throttle in Asia where, in sickening cases of déjà vu, communities in China and India (among others) are suffering the effects. Meanwhile, many Toms River families and former Ciba workers continue to live with anxiety.

Read Is it Safe? and Toms River and you’ll come away with a deepened understanding of how flawed our chemical regulatory system is, how it is designed to err in favor of the chemicals and those who produce them, and how it places overwhelming burdens of proof of harm on those who may suffer ill effects of toxic chemical exposure. Modern regulations have mechanisms to prevent to wholesale dumping of toxics into the environment and prohibit poisoning of workers, but these regulations are often poorly enforced. And as Vogel illustrates in her account, policy’s failure to catch up with science is taking a toll on human health. Both books tell histories that we ignore at our peril.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.


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