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  • Kudos to Rep. Tom McClintock for His Principled Stand

    June 24, 2015 3:21 PM

    Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of TSCA reform (H.R. 2576) by a roll call vote of 398 in favor, one opposed, and 34 members not voting. Yesterday, I lamented the fact that this bill was pushed through under suspension of the rules, which is supposed to be for low-cost, non-controversial bills, which is something that TSCA reform certainly is not.

    In any case, the issue is very complicated, and I am willing to bet money that many of those members who voted yea could offer few details about this legislation, what it does, or what the impact might be, which to some extent remains an enigma. 

    That said, one principled member who dared to vote against this legislation deserves some praise. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) apparently did his homework and had very good reasons for voting no. I contacted his office to inquire why he would be willing to vote nay, while 398 of his colleagues voted yea. His staff sent me the following statement, which outlines many of the reasons that I am also very skeptical that this legislation will do any good:

    This is a well-intentioned bill that accomplishes the opposite of what it is designed to do.  Its purpose is to expedite and standardize the evaluation of toxic chemicals.  Instead, it grants sweeping new powers to the EPA, removes the consideration of cost when conducting a risk evaluation, removes the “least burdensome regulation required” standard from current law, dedicates an unaccountable revolving fund in the Treasury for EPA evaluations, and still allows states to adopt more stringent standards.  Thus, it greatly increases the burdens on low-regulatory states without easing the burdens on high-regulatory states. 

    Wow, he says it all in a nutshell! In particular, the elimination of the requirement that EPA consider and apply the “least burdensome regulation” is critical. That standard holds regulators accountable and ensures that they don’t do more harm than good or impose more burdens than necessary, all while protecting public health. 

    Kudos to Tom McClintock (and his staff) for doing his homework and having the courage to take a tough, principled stand. He’s a rare breed among politicians.

  • Suspending Reason to Pass “TSCA Reform”

    June 23, 2015 4:00 PM

    The process of lawmaking is often compared to sausage making: an unpalatable job that produces a palatable result. It’s easy to agree with the first part of that analogy, but in politics, the result isn’t always pleasant.

    Today, U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to “suspend the rules” and pass its version of reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This cursory approach is another example of the suspension of reason that has plagued the entire TSCA debate, the result of which remains ambiguous at best.

  • Pollinator "Strategy": Pork Barrel, Handouts, and Counterproductive Pesticide Policy

    May 20, 2015 5:18 PM

    The Obama administration has finally released its National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators. It’s the federal government’s answer to all the hype found in the news related to the health on the nation’s honeybee hives. While it’s not clear what it will achieve for the bees, we can be sure it comes with lots of pork-barrel spending, government handouts, and shortsighted pesticide polices that undermine food production.

    I have documented why much of the hype on this issue is misinformed and why solutions will only come from private collaboration between various parties—primarily beekeepers and farmers. The federal government is the last entity that will be able to “save” the honeybee.

    Nonetheless, the report outlines several goals for its program, some of which border on the ridiculous. For example one key goal is: “Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter (overwintering mortality) to no more than 15% within 10 years.” 

    Seriously? Federal officials are going to determine how many beehives should survive each year and what survival rate is sufficient? This is dumb and only sets the stage for news hype every year losses exceed this government set arbitrary number. In fact, many surveys of beekeepers have indicated that a much higher rate is acceptable, closer to 20 percent a year. Moreover, survival rates will ebb and flow based on myriad factors to which government, and even beekeepers, have no control, such as weather and emergence of new and old diseases.

    The federal government has also decided how many butterflies we should have. Among its goal is to increase the Monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies that live on 15 acres in Mexico over the winter, and they will achieve that through “international collaboration.” In addition, the feds also promise to improve 7 million acres of land to make it more pollinator friendly.

    The report lists out a host of action items to achieve these goals that include spending more than $80 million on education and habitat development for pollinators. Education will mean, more government posters and Smithsonian programs, all paid with your tax dollars. Some of it may contain good information, and some probably will amount to no more than anti-pesticide propaganda, and much of it may include just the right amount of alarmism to ensure bigger and bigger allocations of your tax dollars to address this “crisis.”  

  • U.S. Pollinator Policy Should Focus on Facts Rather than Alarmism

    May 13, 2015 12:13 PM

    Today, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research is holding a hearing on “pollinator health” to discuss a national strategy designed to improve honeybee health. Hopefully, U.S. regulators and legislators will not move too quickly on a strategy that is governed by alarmism; rather, they should take a deliberative approach that is based on science and good information. They should avoid the rash approach taken by European policy makers, which is increasingly proving unwarranted and counterproductive.

    The issue erupted in Europe a few years ago, and European lawmakers jumped the gun by deciding to ban a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that environmental activists claimed were wreaking havoc on honeybee populations. Supposedly, this ban would stop a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which most worker bees disappear often after winter hibernation, leaving behind a healthy queen, honey, and male honeybee drones in the hive. But even before the ban could take effect, research shows that honeybees in Europe are suffering fewer post-winter losses than originally believed or expected. And the most recent data indicate that honeybee health is improving, and survival is relatively high.

    The ban took effect December 2013, which means farmers had access to neonicotinoids for all growing seasons until the spring of 2014. So far, there have been two years of data collected measuring post-winter hive survival rates in Europe during 2012-2014. Bees from the hives covered in this survey foraged in the springs and summers of 2012 and 2013—all before the ban took effect in December 2014.

  • On Bee Enslavement and Other Nonsense

    May 7, 2015 5:07 PM

    I’ve seen many crazy headlines about the challenges facing honeybees, but this one takes the cake:

    “Bee collapse is the result of their enslavement in industrial monocultures.”

    So now, not only are humans “killing off” bees, we are “enslaving” them! According to this article, “industrial agriculture” is the problem and technological approaches won’t help things. However, the authors don’t offer much of any solution other than: Until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse.”

    Although they don’t define “local agriculture,” their criticism on the use of pesticides and other methods for high-yield farming suggests they would like to go organic. Unfortunately, that approach is not only unlikely to help feed the world growing populations or create affordable food domestically, it would also be bad news for wildlife. 

    As research scholar Indur Goklany and others have pointed out, producing more food per acre—thanks to agro-technologies such as pesticides and genetic modification—means we have more land for wildlife. For example, Goklany’s research shows that if we did not have high-yield agriculture and we still farmed the way we did back in 1910, we’d have to plant more than three times the amount of land that we plant now to generate the same amount of food.

    In that case, there would be less space left for wildlife. A better approach involves the strategic use of technology along with private stewardship to provide habitat for species. We can leverage the tools we have and ensure minimal environmental impact along with taking concerted actions to protect nature’s creatures at the same time.

    But the authors of this article don’t offer any such balance and instead provide misleading information by suggesting that farming practices in remote areas of china prove that modern farming elsewhere is bad for the environment. Superficially they say:

    In fact, there are now parts of China where bees have already gone extinct, requiring apple orchards to employ between 20 and 25 people to pollinate a hundred trees - something wild pollinators or a couple of hives worth of bees would normally do.

    Despite impressions created in this article, hand pollination is not widespread, is often done for economic rather than environmental reasons, and bees there are not “extinct.” Entomologist Gwen Pearson, Ph.D., offers a balanced article on this topic in this in Wired. She explains that honeybees are not extinct in these areas of China (some people keep them for honey production and some are used for farming) and there are economic reasons that the people there chose to hand pollinate.

  • A Voluntary Approach to Helping the Honeybee

    April 8, 2015 3:12 PM

    Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute published my paper on the honeybee health issue and pesticide use. We have had several media outlets ask, why is CEI focused on the honeybee issue now? If you read this blog, you know that I have been writing about pesticides and their impact on public health and well-being for at least a decade and a half.

    CEI selects issues based on our goals to promote freedom and prosperity, using the market to advance public health and well-being. I focus on chemicals, which I believe are under appreciated and misunderstood market-generated technologies that advance human well-being.  My work on pesticides has focused on allowing strategic uses to control disease carrying vermin such as mosquitos and ticks as well as the benefits and importance of crop protection chemicals for producing a stable food supply. 

    But I have another agenda when it comes to honeybees. As long as I have owned a piece of land, I’ve poured my heart and soul into my wildlife garden. While other people complain and look for regulations and government intrusions, I’d rather be part of the solution. And when it comes to public policy, we won’t help pollinators unless we use science and reason rather than alarmism-driven, anti-technology agendas.

    That said, there are things that private parties can do to help honeybees, and other wildlife, without asking big brother to ban valuable technologies. Consider what I’ve done to my yard.

    When I first moved in, the grass grew up to the house, and I barely saw a bird or butterfly. With lots of digging and effort, my yard is now a destination for myriad butterflies, bumblebees, and bugs I can’t even name. It’s also a favorite destination for all kinds of birds, from hummingbirds to finches and mockingbirds to crows and mourning doves. I even periodically see a crazy beautiful moth called the clearwing hummingbird moth. This amazing little creature really does look like a hummingbird! The feeders in the backyard attract a wide array of birds as well.

    So, for those people who want to help the honeybee, consider growing some plants that will benefit them, whether it’s in your yard or simply in flower box. Habitat is critically important for these creatures. Here are some plants that do well in my Virginia garden. Why not try them in yours?

  • TSCA Reform Debate Is Not about Public Safety

    April 1, 2015 1:59 PM

    At recent hearings on the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S. 697), senators, environmental activists, and local government officials claimed that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) law is not sufficient protect public health. As I have argued before, that’s certainly not the case.

    There may be an economic reason to reform this law—to preempt a growing patchwork of nonsensical state-level consumer product regulations—but there’s no legitimate “safety” reason for reform.

    Still, activists and some members of Congress at the hearing complained that TSCA’s risk standard has prevented the EPA from banning “a known human carcinogen,” i.e., asbestos. Cosponsor of S. 697 Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) exclaimed at the hearing, “I think we all agree: TSCA is fatally flawed. It has failed to ban even asbestos.”

    Activists and members of Congress point out that EPA failed to address asbestos in part because TSCA requires EPA to pick the “least burdensome” regulation to achieve its goals. 

    But how can that be a bad thing? Shouldn’t we want to achieve our goals at the lowest costs? It doesn’t say EPA should pick a regulation that is less safe; rather, it says that EPA should simply pick a less expensive means to meet the safety goal.

    That requirement is part of TSCA’s robust risk standard that holds regulators accountable and prevents them from passing rules that do more harm than good. Under TSCA, EPA may regulate when the agency finds that a chemical may pose an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” This standard requires weighing the risks of the chemical against the risks of the regulatory action.

    People who use the asbestos case to push TSCA reform are either grossly misinformed about the case or they are simply being disingenuous. It is true that the rule was thrown out by a federal court in part because EPA did not bother to find the “least burdensome” approach to meet its goals. In addition, the court pointed out that the rule might have produced more deaths than theoretical lives saved. Accordingly, this is not a TSCA failure, it’s a life-saving success!

  • Arsenic in Wine: Dangerous or Beneficial?

    March 26, 2015 2:23 PM

    Dan Nosowitz in Modern Farmer offers some insights on the recent class action lawsuit filed against California winemakers. The plaintiffs found that some inexpensive wines contained arsenic at levels exceeding the federal drinking water standard for this substance. Nosowitz rightly points out that the standard is for water, not wine and “people don’t, or shouldn’t, drink as much wine as water.”   

    Well, let’s not go that far… kidding of course! Moderation is surely a good idea when it comes to alcohol consumption. Yet even if you drank as much wine as you do water, there’s still no reason to be alarmed about arsenic. The levels in wine are still too low to have any significant adverse impacts, and ironically, such small amounts might even have health benefits. 

    Arsenic is an element that naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, so traces of arsenic inevitably appear in food and water. Certainly, high levels of arsenic are not healthy and concentrated exposures can be immediately deadly. But the trace levels found in water and food are rarely an issue. Problems have emerged primarily in developing nations like Bangladesh where poor people drink from untreated water sources with arsenic levels that range in the hundreds of parts per billion (ppb), and sometimes more than 1,000 ppb.

    It’s worth noting that the levels allegedly found in wine are reportedly just five times greater (or 500 percent higher as noted in the press) than the federal drinking water standard of 10 ppb. So, some number of samples—we don’t know how many—tested by the plaintiffs in this case had some level of arsenic near the 50 ppb level. But did you know that until 2006, that was the allowable level in drinking water in the United States and it had been for decades?

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the standard to 10 ppb in 2001 with full compliance not required until 2006. The 10 ppb standard for arsenic in drinking water is excessively overcautious. When EPA proposed it, it was very controversial because the cost to small drinking water systems was substantial and the benefits highly questionable. EPA’s Science Advisory Board highlighted lots of problems with EPA’s science and maintained that the change could actually undermine public health. The SAB explained that the costs might cause some small communities to disconnect their water systems, forcing people to use untreated well water, but EPA finalized the rule anyway. 

    If you look at the history, you can see that EPA did not change the standard for safety reasons; they did it for political ones. You may remember, environmental activists attacked the Bush administration for taking time to reconsider changing the standard, which the Clinton administration rushed out during the final hours of the Clinton presidency. Green groups made it sound like the Bush administration was adding arsenic to the water supply. And this bad press made a rational and scientific debate impossible.

  • Data Torturing at the CPSC

    March 19, 2015 1:57 PM

    James Mills of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lamented in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1993: “‘If you torture your data long enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear’ has become a popular observation in our office. In plain English, this means that study data, if manipulated in enough different ways can prove whatever the investigator wants to prove.”

    Government regulators will resort to such data torture to justify an activist regulatory agendas if they can’t do it with good data and sound science. One approach includes selective use of data—excluding years or datasets that might change the conclusions of a risk assessment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recent Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) report on the chemical class known as phthalates offers one new example of excluding inconvenient data.

    In short, the CHAP report is being used to justify a proposed rule that would essentially ban the use of certain chemicals for toys that children might mouth or chew. These chemicals make plastics soft and pliable, suited for such things as a plastic version of a “rubber duckie.” For background on this issue, see my other blog posts here and here

    In addition, in the absence of any compelling body of data that any individual phthalate is the cause of human health effects, the panel relied on the possibility that the cumulative effects of phthalates as a class pose risks. Accordingly, they needed data on human exposure from all sources.

    The panel developed a “cumulative risk assessment” that they maintained justified regulations. But pharmacologist Christopher J. Borgert, Ph.D., observes in a review of the CHAP report that the panel’s cumulative risk assessment: “failed to recognize obvious inconsistencies with human experience and clinical evidence”; “overstates the accuracy of its cumulative risk methods and conclusions”; and “appears to have grossly overestimated chemical potencies.” In other words, the panel failed to properly apply the available data and research.

    To make matters worse, they used old and irrelevant data for their human exposure assessments even though more accurate and recent data was available. Former and current CPSC commissioners have noted that had the panel used the most recent data, their risk assessment would have produced the opposite result. This issue raises the prospect that the panel members were intentionally “selective” in their use of data because they desired to generate a particular conclusion, as appears to be the case with their selection of studies that they also reviewed. 

  • CPSC's Scientific Shenanigans on Phthalates

    March 18, 2015 2:00 PM

    Many “stakeholders” have complained about the process through which the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) developed its proposed rule related to a class of chemicals called phthalates—and rightly so. In particular, the agency’s failure to allow public comment and open peer review of its Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel report (CHAP report) underscore the fact that bureaucrats want to avoid scrutiny that might hold them accountable for rash and unscientific decisions. 

    Designed to make plastics soft and pliable, these chemicals have many valuable uses for making a wide range of products from blood bags, to rain boots and swimming pool liners as well as children’s toys, which are the subject of this regulation. Safely used for decades, activists and regulators are poised to essentially throw away these valuable technologies based largely on junk science. 

    While this rule only affects toys that children might place in their mouths or chew, it sets a terrible precedent. I already detailed how this rule might harm consumers in a blog post last week. Now let’s look at the so-called “science” behind it.

    The justification for the proposed regulations are found within the CHAP report, which is a review and risk assessment that the agency released in July 2014. A key problem stems from the fact that the CHAP report relies on a selective review of limited studies that offer scant evidence that individual phthalates or cumulative exposure pose any significant risk to humans at current exposure levels. 

    Most of the CHAP-report-identified “evidence” that these chemicals pose health risks comes from lab tests that over-dose rodents to trigger health effects. Such tests are not particularly relevant to humans that better metabolize the substance and who are exposed to traces that are multitudes lower.

    The human research highlighted in the CHAP report is not particularly compelling either. Many of these human studies are noted to be “small,” which limits their value for drawing any conclusions. And many of them report associations between potential health effects in babies whose mothers’ phthalate exposure levels were measured in single “spot” urine samples during pregnancy. Given that humans metabolize phthalates relatively quickly, one time spot measurements may be misleading about actual exposures, raising important questions about the utility of such studies.

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