Weak Rules on Toxins and Safety

Publication: The New York Times

Author: David Leonhardt

03/30/2010 - For 14 years until just last month, GlaxoSmithKline sold a denture cream called Super Poligrip that contained high levels of zinc.

The zinc helped with adhesion and was probably safe so long as people used moderate amounts of cream. Indeed, the human body needs small amounts of zinc to function. But some people ended up using much larger amounts, and they began to develop the kind of nerve damage associated with excess zinc.

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Several common diseases, like certain cancers and developmental disorders, have been rising in recent decades, and scientists are not sure why. In some cases, evidence suggests chemicals may be the reason.

Nobody can be sure, though. The science is not far enough along, partly because our regulation of toxins is so limp. Companies don’t have to release much of their internal safety data. And regulators face a terribly high burden of proof. They can often take action only after they have demonstrated that a substance is harmful — a task that corporate secrecy can make impossible.

“I can get information on only 20 percent of chemicals we interact with on a daily basis,” says Alan Goldberg, a toxicologist at Johns Hopkins. Erik Olson, a food and consumer product expert at The Pew Charitable Trusts, sums up the situation this way: “We’re a heck of a lot closer to the Wild West than the nanny state.”

Read the full report Weak Rules on Toxins and Safety on the New York Times' Web site.

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