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Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

Acclaimed ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber discusses the need for meaningful reform of toxics regulation and why extreme energy extraction must end.

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Kari: So what do you think would be more effective, tackling these toxic chemicals one by one, such as our legal work against  styrene and household chemicals, or reforming TSCA itself?

Sandra: So what I see happening is both. So there are different groups often led by mothers who have become alarmed at one thing or another. In some cases it's  flame retardants, which we now know act very similarly to PCBs—one of the few chemicals we did take off the market when we had an inkling of harm. And subsequent evidence shows that that decision was really a good one because now we know that PCBs are not only carcinogens, they're also neurotoxicants, so they act like lead in the developing brain, shaving off IQ points and leading to attention deficit disorders and difficulties with learning. We know that PCBs contribute to shortened pregnancies and therefore pre-term labor, which is the leading cause of disability in this nation because it can actually alter calcium flow through uterine muscle tissue.

So all these things we learn after we ban them, showing us that that decision was a good one. Brominated flame retardants act very similarly, and in addition they have impacts on the thyroid gland and yet, even though we have much more evidence for their harm than we did when we banned PCBs, they're still on the market. So there's a lot of focused activism around single issues, like styrene, like PCBs, like atrazine. And, at the same time then, there are other organizations taking a more systematic approach, who are going after TSCA itself, hoping to reform that law so that we set up a whole new system for testing chemicals both before they're allowed onto marketplace and hopefully also to drag chemicals into the lab finally and test them, so that they're not just innocent until proven guilty and floating around out there in our economy without any testing at all.

Now that more systematic approach is the decision taken by the European Union, so across the Atlantic Ocean more than ten years ago now the European Union, which had a law very similar to TSCA, decided to scrap that and start over, and put a far more precautionary law in place, which can really be summarized as saying "no data—no market." So until you can demonstrate safety, you can't sell it or market it and that includes all of these old chemicals that had been allowed to kind of freely circulate.

Map of the Marcellus Shale.
 
The geologic formation known as the Marcellus Shale stretches primarily from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Where I'm positioning my work right now is actually at a place more upstream even than that. I am now convinced that meaningful toxic chemical reform runs straight through our energy system. Most of these toxic chemicals are petro-chemicals. They come to us because we are building our materials economy out of the building blocks of left-over junk from a carbon-based energy system.

So, for example, the bedrock above which I live here in New York is the Marcellus Shale. It turns out to be the motherload of methane in the United States. And so now we are targeted by the  fracking industry that wants to tunnel into it, blow it apart, using water along with a lot of toxic chemicals to get these bubbles of methane out. But what comes up with the methane—which is what natural gas is—are also other volatile hydrocarbons like ethane. And to use up that waste product, we are now planning to build an ethylene cracker north of Pittsburg so that all the waste products from fracking operations can be turned into stuff, like more plastic. Not because we have a human need for more plastic, but because it solves this waste disposal problem. And of course, the oceans become the final depository for plastic. This gets into the fish that we eat and is a menace to the whole food chain.

 
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