As hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants were dropped into the Gulf of Mexico to control the oil spill, Philip Howard did a little digging. He wanted to figure out what was in the chemicals that were being dumped on the Gulf’s fish, turtles and other marine life.

But he didn’t get very far.

“I was asked to find out what was in that compound. So I went to the chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet, which was not particularly clarifying,” said Howard, a senior scientist with SRC, a nonprofit environmental research company headquartered in Syracuse, N.Y.

“All it said was that it was an organic sulfonate. A salt.”

Across the globe, scientists and regulators are encountering the same gaps in knowledge about the potential ecological effects of most of the estimated 70,000 to 90,000 chemicals in commerce today.
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“Chemicals are coming out a lot faster than we are able to evaluate them,” said Tom McKone, an adjunct professor of environmental health at University of California, Berkeley and a risk expert at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. “We’re probably doing well with the chemicals of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But we’re getting thrown curveballs. Like nanoparticles.”

California is mounting an effort to try to catch up.

This week, the state’s environmental agency called together nearly a dozen experts to provide guidance on how to build a comprehensive chemical clearinghouse that would give the public more information.

“Think of it as a big library of chemicals,” said Melanie Marty, Chief of the Air, Toxicology and Epidemiology Branch at the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

In 2008, as part of the state’s cutting-edge Green Chemistry Initiative, the California Legislature mandated creation of an internet database that identifies the physical and chemical properties of all chemicals, as well as their potential for harming the environment or human health. State officials have until January to specify the chemical traits to be included in the new “Toxics Information Clearinghouse.”

But repeatedly, the speakers at this week’s workshop, held at UC Berkeley, warned that creating a comprehensive repository for chemicals will be a challenge.

“My best wishes for your impossible task,” said Bill Nazaroff, a panelist and a civil/environmental engineer at UC Berkeley.

The panelists lamented the sheer number of chemicals the database will have to cover; the time it takes to learn anything about just one compound; and the fact that there are thousands of chemicals that have simply not yet been identified.

The experts also expressed concern about the lack of labeling requirements on consumer products, a data gap that leaves the public in the dark about product ingredients or chemical make-up.

“If you can’t tell me what’s being introduced into this space, I can’t tell you what your exposure is,” said Nazaroff.

Nevertheless, the panelists applauded the state’s mission, and discussed new tests being developed that will enable scientists to evaluate many chemicals in a very short period of time.

These high-throughput screening assays can scour genetic and cellular data in minutes, providing virtual blueprints for how chemicals behave. Although these tests are not comprehensive, they do provide insight and directions for toxicologists to explore more thoroughly.

Beyond these tests, many of which may not be ready for another five or 10 years, Gary Ankley, a toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, advised the state to access the dozens of tests and databases already publicly available.

“We can start by doing the things we know we can do,” Ankley said. “We can pick that low-hanging fruit.”

This week's workshop was designed to discuss how to analyze the ecological effects of chemicals. A meeting in March dealt with the human health effects.

Tyrone Hayes, a biology professor at UC Berkeley, presented his research as an example of how chemicals can have dramatic effects on wildlife and ecosystems. Many environmental scientists are worried about a global environment that is inundated with a mixture of industrial chemicals.

Hayes exposed male frogs to atrazine, an herbicide widely used on corn and other crops, and then watched the males mate with one another and produce offspring. The frogs had been feminized by the hormone-altering chemical.

“This was three generations of African Clawed frogs that were all brothers, fathers and sons,” said Hayes.

California adopted the clearinghouse law after a UC Berkeley report concluded that federal toxics law was too weak to protect the public and the environment. In many cases, the only information available to the public about a particular chemical is on federal Material Safety Data Sheets, which are designed to address issues of worker safety, not the safety of consumers or ecosystems.

Simultaneously, the California Legislature enacted another law in 2008 requiring state officials to identify and prioritize “chemicals of concern.” That law gives state officials the authority to restrict or ban substances that pose known hazards to consumers. They have until January to establish the process for identifying the riskiest chemicals.

David Epel, a panelist from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, asked whether the clearinghouse would allow the state to regulate manufacturers that produce harmful chemicals.

“Will this have any regulatory teeth? Will it stop anything from being produced?” he asked.

“I think we’re moving toward that,” said Marty, one of the workshop coordinators. “The Department of Toxic Substances Control is going to have a look at these chemicals and decide whether or not to have them in consumer products.”

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.