Chemical attack

More than 4 new chemicals introduced everyday -- usually without safety

Published: Tuesday 31 May 2005

-- More than 1,500 new chemicals are introduced annually the world over, that is, more than 4 chemicals daily

Total number of chemicals known to exist -- more than 7 million. Of these, more than 1,00,000 are commonly used

From one million tonnes in 1930, the global chemical production now is more than 400 million tonnes. A 400-times increase in just over 70 years. Regionally, Europe is the largest chemical producer, followed by the US

In the US, as per the inventory of chemicals maintained under the Toxic Substances Control Act, more than 62,000 chemicals were in commercial use in 1979, increasing to 73,757 in 2001. In the US, the incidence of cancer in children shot up by 26 per cent from 1975-1998

A re these chemicals tested for safety? Rarely, because the law in most countries lacks such a requirement

Without any or only rudimentary tests for safety, most chemicals are introduced into everyday products such as cosmetics, household appliances, furniture and toys. According to the European Environment Agency, "For most of these chemicals we simply do not know how they pass through the environment, whether they are accumulated, and how they affect living organisms at different concentrations"

Six tests have been internationally agreed to for screening high production volume (HPV) chemicals. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Screening Information Data Set (OECD/SIDS) programme posits these as: mutagenicity, ecotoxicity, acute toxicity, chronic toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, and environmental fate

93 per cent of the 3,000 HPV chemicals in the US are missing one or more of these tests; 43 per cent are missing all these tests. Only 7 per cent of these chemicals have all the screening tests done

In Europe, for 75 per cent of about 3,000 chemicals with an annual production of more than 1,000 tonnes each, toxicity data is insufficient for "minimal" risk assessment under OECD guidelines

Chemical industry only does very crude toxicity screening tests just to ensure the products pose no immediate danger to the consumer. Standard tests for cancer, birth defects and other long-term health problems are almost never performed

148 of the 830 companies making HPV chemicals in the US have no SIDS data available for their products; an additional 459 companies have data for less than half of the SIDS tests. Only 21 companies (a mere 3 per cent) have all SIDS tests available for their chemicals

The SIDS test data costs about US $200,000 per chemical. For all the HPV chemicals in use, the cost works out to about US $427 million, which is just 0.2 per cent of the total annual sales of the top 100 US chemical companies in 1997

US authorities approved 23,971 new chemicals from 1976 to 1994. 90 per cent of them were approved with no restrictions on proposed use and production and with no requests for additional test data. Less than 4 per cent of such submissions contain any measured values for the properties of the chemical. Less than 1 per cent submissions contain biodegradation data, which is an indicator of the persistence of chemicals in the environment

And these are only for individual chemicals. Humans are exposed to combinations of hundreds of such chemicals everyday. Testing their effects in combination is virtually impossible. To test 100 chemicals in combinations of 3 would require 162,000 tests. And that is just for one effect, say cancer

Chemical industry claims that lower doses pose no harm. But studies show low doses can be more toxic than high doses, especially for chemicals such as certain pyrethyroid insecticides that affect the endocrine (hormone) system. The reason appears to be that at higher doses, the defence mechanisms kick in

Finally, safety tests, seldom conducted, are usually on animals. They can be misleading. Animal tests missed the toxic dose of polychlorinated biphenyls by 10,000 times

Sources:United States Environmental Protection Agency,;; Chemicals in the European Environment: Low Doses, High Stakes? European Environment Agency and other sources

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