Emily Monosson in American Scientist:
PCBs are one of the best kept secrets,” a chemist once told me. This was the 1980s, and he made his livelihood extracting polychlorinated biphenyls, a class of synthetic chemicals whose production in the United States was banned in 1979, from fish tissues and sediments. What he meant was that although we hadn’t yet fully understood the toxicology of these chemicals, there was plenty of concern about widespread contamination: enough to keep cadres of federal and private-industry chemists employed for years studying the PCBs which had made their way from factories into air and water and eventually into fish, birds, whales and humans. At the time, PCB analyses were about $500 a pop, and tests for dioxins (PCBs’ more nefarious cousin) cost more than $1,000. Add to this all the dollars that have been spent funding toxicologists and other health-related scientists, engineers and clean-up experts—and the more difficult-to-measure costs associated with health effects. For the past 30 years or more, our collective experience with these synthetic pollutants has been costly, and we—the public—are too often the ones footing the bill. As Carl F. Cranor describes them in Legally Poisoned,these costs represent the externalities—costs not fully reflected in the market price of a product—so often associated with industrial chemicals and our ongoing reliance on postmarket environmental-health laws to protect us. Cranor explains that many important chemicals, including drugs, pesticides and food additives, are regulated by premarket testing, a flawed but relatively effective approach in which, as the phrase implies, toxicity testing is required before commercialization. But far too many chemicals, such as PCBs, bisphenol A (BPA) and polybrominated flame retardants are subject only to postmarket laws. These chemicals are commonly referred to as “innocent until proven guilty,” and they are the chemicals that all too often invade our most private spaces—our bodies.
The market is awash with books about toxic bodies, babies, rubber ducks, homes and workplaces (not to mention in-laws, men, faith and assets). Cranor, a legal and moral philosopher and a faculty member in the University of California, Riverside’s graduate environmental toxicology program, cannot resist reiterating how contaminated we all are. Nonetheless, Legally Poisonedoffers a refreshingly different take on toxic chemicals in our lives, explaining how this situation came to be and what we might do about it.