Coming clean 

National campaign targets growing chemical exposure

That Americans are often of two minds about their government is no secret. A healthy dose of suspicion mingled with an inherent trust in lawmakers to do the right thing is an American characteristic. But to local environmentalist Bryony Schwan, it’s also a conundrum when it comes to regulating the nation’s massive and politically well-connected chemical industry.

Schwan, honored this month by the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center for her work with Women’s Voices for the Earth, now heads up a national organization designed to reduce the number of chemicals contaminating our landscape and finding their way into our food chain.

Schwan serves as national campaign coordinator for Coming Clean, a nationwide coalition of grassroots organizations that grew out of a documentary about abuses by the chemical industry, produced by journalist Bill Moyers and aired last year by PBS.

One of the group’s goals is to inform Americans that, contrary to a popular belief, the government does not test every new chemical that is released into our air, our food, our water and our bodies.

The chemical industry—including manufacturers, users, suppliers and distributors—is an amorphous beast, Schwan says. It has its roots in the 19th century, but really took off after World War II, when many chemicals first designed for weapons found their way into consumer products. “A lot of pesticides started their lives as chemical weapons,” she says. The post-war industry grew for decades before government regulatory agencies established safeguards for public health, giving the industry a good head start, and leaving the government to play catch-up.

Of the 80,000 or so chemicals on the market today, Schwan says, less than half have ever been tested for their long-term human toxicity. While chemicals are tested for acute toxicity, which measure the potential for immediate injury from a single exposure, the long-term effects of routine, low-level exposure are simply unknown for tens of thousands of chemicals. Consider nail polish, for example, which contains a chemical known as dibutyl pthalate, or DBP. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have discovered traces of DBP in every person it tested for the chemical, with the highest levels found in women of childbearing age. Scientists now know that DBP causes severe birth defects in laboratory animals, including testicular atrophy, absent testes and reduced sperm count. Still, federal law allows cosmetics manufacturers to put an unlimited amount of DBP into personal care products with no testing, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

Moreover, those chemicals that are tested are done so individually, and not in combination with other chemicals—for the simple reason that the chemical combinations would be virtually limitless. And, Schwan, says, they’re tested on adult men and not on the more vulnerable populations of children and pregnant women. So when a farmer says he’s been spraying pesticides on his land for years and suffers no ill effects, that may be true—for him. But what of the woman who gives birth to a child who develops cancer or some other ailment five, 10 or 15 years down the road? There is no way to pinpoint the moment in her pregnancy when she received a dangerous exposure to that pesticide, or prove it was the cause.

“How do we know where our milk comes from?” asks Schwan. “Or our butter, or cheese? How do we know these cows weren’t living in ‘Cancer Alley?’” Cancer Alley is no mere metaphor for the chemical industry, but an actual place situated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the heart of the vinyl chloride manufacturing industry, the “belly of the beast,” as Schwan calls it. Many of the nation’s chemical plants located there because the neighborhoods are poor, mostly black and lacking in the political clout necessary to keep them out. Lit up at night for miles, the sky glows blood-red from the periodic flares, “an astounding sight,” as Schwan describes it. But lest anyone thinks that the risks of massive chemical exposure exist only where manufacturing plants are located, one need look no further than Alberton, where a mixed chemical spill from a Montana Rail Link train in April 1996 killed one man and poisoned dozens more.

Following that local disaster, Missoula City Councilwoman Lou Ann Crowley was appointed to a subcommittee to come up with a local emergency plan aimed at the transportation of hazardous materials. Crowley is reluctant to talk about the subcommittee and the plans they tried to develop, saying only that it’s “dormant” for now. “We didn’t really know where to start. I felt a little overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.” Being overwhelmed by the enormity of taking on the chemical industry is something Schwan understands well—which is precisely why the Coming Clean Campaign was formed. Many of the 35 groups in the coalition that met for the first time last June—in Cancer Alley, no less—are community and grassroots groups formed in the wake of their own local problem, such as an acute exposure by workers or the construction of a new chemical plant. Many believed they were alone in their struggles and had little or no resources to wage effective campaigns individually.

Schwan doesn’t want to reveal too much about the campaign’s strategy, but she does say that the groups have some common themes, such as the desire to get rid of polyvinyl chloride and, of course, the need to educate the public and build support, “so when we do policy work the public will be with us,” she says. “I don’t think we expect to win with a great big bang. We expect to win in small increments. It’s an enormous campaign.”

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