In the Castle’s Shadow

The CNN headline was “Bill would let federal health researchers ban certain chemicals.” Later this month, legislation will be introduce in the US Senate by Jim Moran and John Kerry that will give the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences the power to classify up to 10 chemicals each year as being “of high concern.” With that classification, use of the chemical would have to stop within two years—unless a specific use can be proven to not expose humans.

I’m of two minds on this.

On the one hand, it is a step in the right direction. The purpose of the agency is research not regulation, so it hasn’t been infested with the processes that have prevented the EPA from acting on toxic substances. It’s also true that the people working at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are leading the way on toxic exposures, endocrine disruptors in particular. So they’re good guys.

On the other hand, why only ten chemicals per year? And why does industry get two years? If a chemical is “of high concern,” why shouldn’t it be yanked immediately? In other words, the legislation could be stronger.

More darkly, although the Institute isn’t a regulatory captive now, chemical forces will soon be at work to change that. And even more darkly, the people currently working there are on our side. What happens when lunatic Republicans take power and politicize the Institute so that industry is protected?

Finally, this is a technocratic solution to a social problem. The captains of industry get to bath us in whatever concoction suits them until some underfunded agency or university researcher finds a problem after people have already been exposed and suffered for some time. Instead, of course, captains of industry should be forbidden to use the latest chemical wonder until independent, wellfunded agency and university researchers show that it’s safe.

But there’s more. The bill is titled the Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Exposure Elimination Act of 2011. A few years ago, the same two Senators introduced legislation titled the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009. This piece of legislation would have created a program administered by the EPA that kept track of the mischief caused by endocrine disruptors.

The American Chemistry Council (a chemical industry trade association) spent over $10 million in lobbying against the 2009 bill while CropLife America (a pesticide industry trade association) spent almost $3 million. The 2009 bill never made it out of committee. I don’t need to remind you that the politics of the Senate and House are worse now than two years ago. So the chance that this new, more aggressive legislation will pass is less than slim.

Suppose, however, that (by some miracle) it did pass and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences started listing chemicals “of high concern.” Would our health improve?

In my opinion, it would not.

A recent study found that over 4 out of every 10 children suffer from at least one of 20 chronic health conditions. If metabolic disruptions such as excess body weight are included, that proportion goes up to over 5 in 10 children. In another study, the cost due to environmental exposures that children experience increased over the last ten years—principally from lead poisoning and childhood cancers. As the study’s authors note, this does not include the developmental effects of endocrine disruptors. And in yet another recent study, developmental disabilities suffered by children increased between 1997 and 2008 from 13 percent to 15 percent. And before you think that’s a small difference, it comes to 1.8 million more children.

Despite 100 years of legislation and regulation, particularly vigorous in the last five decades, our children’s health is getting worse and their health as adults is likely to be worse than ours. Most sensible people acknowledge that environmental causes play a huge role. The conclusion I draw is that legislation and regulation didn’t work. In fact, I conclude that the system that relies on the early 20th Century politics of technocratic protection through reform and regulation doesn’t work.

Some people—maybe even most people; maybe even you—have to believe that the existing system can be reformed. I am not one of them.

When I first studied political economy, I was told a tale of how Medieval merchants created a new political economy in the shadow of the Feudal lord’s castle. What evolved from that shadow political economy devoured the Feudal system—not through destruction and mayhem (although there was more than plenty of that), but through its ability to work better. Our job now is to create a shadow political economy that works better and eventually devours the captains of industry who are poisoning us and our children.