One good example might be the ongoing hazards of some of the waterproofing spray components that have been on the market. These are sprays used by consumers to treat shoes or leather, or sometimes they are used in more specialty applications, like construction. In these products the common link is various kinds of fluoropolymers, and they cause very severe lung injury in exposed individuals, sometimes with fairly trivial home use of these products. That injury is manifest within 12 to 24 hours, and so it is apparent with greater ease that there has been an association between exposure and the illness.
Why are these exposures happening? Aren't there regulations in place to protect us?
Well for one thing there is not good premarket testing regulation. For certain materials, for example drugs and pharmaceuticals, there is premarket testing. But there is nothing like that for home consumer products. The stuff comes out on the market and the consumer or the occupational user is the guinea pig, the test animal.
Secondly, the main regulatory group that is responsible in this is something called the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which to most consumers is an obscure regulatory body that has been extremely ineffectual. Their stated policy is to avoid almost at all costs mandatory recalls of products, and so most of what they do is work for voluntary recalls. There don't seem to be penalties associated, and I think the operative word here even in the best-case scenario is "recall," which means the material has already gone out to the marketplace.
What is the situation like in other countries?
The European Union (E.U.) has introduced a program called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), which introduced premarket testing. It is not perfect, and there are some things that are exempted. I think that the key change that we'll need to introduce in the U.S. is more widely applied premarket testing. And in any event, American companies that want to sell in the E.U. are going to be forced to do this.
I think everyone has been aware of the issues with importation to the U.S. of materials that are contaminated. This was the most vividly shown in the lead-painted toy fiasco several years ago, in which literally millions of lead-contaminated toys were imported, primarily from China. Again this fell under the bailiwick of the CPSC, which came to a gentlemen's agreement with the Chinese to stop doing it. Of course what we have found more recently is that instead of lead-painted toys, we have cadmium-painted toys. Cadmium is another toxic metal—its toxicity is different than lead, but it is not something you want reintroduced in the environment, especially children's environments. By the same token, we have been exporting to China electronics for recycling, which has led to very high exposure levels for the Chinese that work in recycling of these materials. So it is a two-way street.
The U.S. has also posed international treaty restrictions on the exportation of hazardous materials. In fact, historically some of the things banned in the U.S. are only banned in their sale or use, not necessarily their manufacture or export. The actual banning of a product is a very rare and underused solution to problems that are otherwise probably insoluble. For asbestos, for example, probably the only true solution to the problem is a worldwide ban on asbestos. Although asbestos use is severely restricted in the U.S., in fact it is not banned. Worldwide, there is still a great deal of exportation. In that realm Canada is the main profiteer, since the asbestos mining occurs there; it has at every step of the way tried to oppose asbestos controls in terms of international trade.
Conversely, the U.S. has been considering the introduction of a manganese additive to gasoline. Environmental and occupational experts are very worried about this because manganese is a metal that is associated with Parkinson's disease, or Parkinsonian damage to the brain, and the idea of inhalable manganese being spewed out of every tail pipe in the country is a recapitulation of the leaded gasoline disaster of the 20th century. Ironically, the same company that made its profits from tetraethyl lead has come up with this manganese product, because the market for tetraethyl lead is quite diminished, as you might imagine. So far, the EPA (which regulates gasoline formulations in the U.S.) has been studying this and has held it up—it has not yet been approved. (This is an example of something for which there is premarket testing.) But in the meantime, Canada banned, or attempted to ban, the sale and use of this product. The U.S. sued them under the North American Free Trade Agreement and forced them to import it. Basically every nation, when it comes to its own economic interests, does not particularly care what happens elsewhere.