Say What? A Chemical Can Damage Your Lungs, Liver and Kidneys and Still Be Labeled "Non-Toxic"?

Bisphenol A, parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, and on and on. Do they expect us all to be chemists? I’m a chemist and even I don’t want make every trip to the store a research project. Why not just provide a simple label like “nontoxic” that we can look for? Surely it is illegal to put a nontoxic label on products containing known toxic or carcinogenic substances—especially on children’s products. Not so. And we all should know how we got into this mess.

Until the 1980s, even asbestos was a common ingredient in many products including children’s art materials. For example, one product was a powdered papier-mâché product for children marketed by Milton Bradley. It contained about 50 percent asbestos powder. Called FibroClay, the asbestos-containing product had a nontoxic approved product (AP) seal on it from the organization known today as the Arts and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI).

Although the hazards of asbestos were known in the 1970s and the 1980s, the only required toxicity tests for consumer products at the time were acute animal tests. These tests involve a brief exposure to the test substance and observation of the animals two weeks later. Because asbestos didn’t immediately poison the test animals, no law was broken by labeling this product “nontoxic.”

The asbestos problem and other labeling issues were raised by a group of activists, including myself, when I worked with a nonprofit corporation later known as the Center for Safety in the Arts. The center presented the problem to the National Art Materials Trade Association (NAMTA) in 1979. NAMTA refused to work with us to amend the labeling laws to cover chronic or long-term hazards, however, so we took the issue to various states. We were joined by many groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Public Health Association, and Artists Equity—a huge coalition of trade associations, health professionals, and artists. Yet the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its many state offices became the backbone of the lobbying efforts.

Seven state legislatures understood the insanity of labeling products “nontoxic” when they contain known carcinogens and passed laws that required the chronic hazard labeling of art materials.

These states were California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Tennessee, and Virginia, and others considered similar legislation. Each state had slightly different requirements, which made it almost impossible for manufacturers to design a label that met all of the different rules. At this point, even NAMTA decided that it would be better to have a federal law to address this issue with a single set of regulations. Within a few years, a bill was drafted and introduced.

On October 19, 1988, Congress passed the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). Some of the provisions of LHAMA included requiring manufacturers to determine whether their products contained chronic hazards; requiring labeling on those products with chronic hazards, which included a statement that these products were inappropriate for children; prohibiting the purchase of such materials for use by children in grade six and below; and adopting the labeling procedures developed by the American Society of Testing and Materials for the labeling of chronic hazards in art materials, ASTM D 4236.

This sounds good so far, but there was a flaw in the ASTM D 4236 standard that none of us appreciated fully at the time. This standard requires a review of the list of ingredients by a toxicologist, who will then select the proper warning phrases and certify that this labeling will provide users with the information they need to use the product safely. If the toxicologist thinks there are no significant hazards, no warnings are required. His or her determination should be reached without any personal conflict of interest. But the flaw in this procedure is that the certifying toxicologist is paid for this work by the art material manufacturers—and handsomely.

The art material manufacturer is the toxicologist’s client, either directly or through a certifying organization such as the ACMI. The more clients a toxicologist or a certifying agency has, the greater the revenues, so pleasing the client is an important objective. A serious conflict of interest is built into the regulation. (We saw the same sort of problem with Enron’s accountants and the bond rating agencies during the banking crisis.) Some certifying agencies such as the ACMI developed seals of approval that included the word “nontoxic.” This word is not one of the label terms in ASTM D 4236, but it has been used so often by certifiers that schools to this day often require their art supplies to be labeled “nontoxic.” In my opinion, very toxic art materials were and are still labeled “nontoxic” as a result of this conflict of interest.

Just what does the “nontoxic” label really mean? To understand, we first need to learn the vocabulary of toxicology and discover the many different ways a substance can be toxic.

Defining Toxic

Asbestos is an extreme example, which I use here and in my book Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All to make a point, but many other “nontoxic” products could be full of toxic chemicals. I’m hoping this essay leaves you with a general distrust of the nontoxic label, both in the past and currently. When you see “nontoxic” on a product, keep the following facts in mind:

• “Nontoxic” can still legally mean that there are no immediate, acute hazards as determined by the LD50 and LC50 tests.

• “Nontoxic” may mean there are little or no chronic data available on the substance. If the substance is not acutely toxic, and one can’t prove it is toxic in the long term, many manufacturers feel that they have the right to call it nontoxic. Even if there are studies showing that the substance is toxic, manufacturers in the United States have traditionally waited for absolute, unequivocal proof, which in most cases is never available because we don’t study our chemicals.

• An art material is “nontoxic” if a toxicologist paid by the manufacturer decides it is safe. The dramatic failure in this labeling procedure was illustrated with the lead ceramic glazes and asbestos-containing materials such as talc. Asbestos-containing talcs are still found in some art and craft materials today.

• Some art materials that have never been evaluated by a toxicologist may be labeled “nontoxic” illegally due to weak enforcement of the art materials labeling law. For example, in 1995, a cameraman and a reporter from Channel 9 in New York went with me to a major art materials outlet. That night on the evening news, we showed viewers about a dozen imported products that did not conform to the law, some labeled “nontoxic,” which were being sold illegally. This is still true today, and a little research will lead you to many sources of noncompliant “nontoxic” products.

• Labeling of ordinary consumer products is pretty much up to the manufacturer and its paid advisers. Because there is no enforcement mechanism in the regulations for the chronic hazard labeling of ordinary consumer products, there is not much incentive to provide warnings.

• There is no regulatory requirement to warn consumers about damage to most of the body’s organs, such as the lungs, the liver, and the kidneys. Only four types of chronic hazards are covered by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act regulations. These are cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological damage.

Lawsuits are just about the only recourse for the public. Manufacturers often say that they fear lawsuits and that’s why they do a good job of labeling. But in the case of chronic health effects that don’t appear for ten to forty years, a company’s CEO who makes false statements on a product label is not at risk from lawsuits. He will have his retirement income and his bonuses and be living in the Bahamas before the first case is filed.

Toxic Intake

Chemical toxicity is dependent on the dose, the amount of the chemical that enters the body. Each chemical produces harm at a different dose. Highly toxic chemicals cause serious damage with only tiny doses. Moderately and slightly toxic substances are toxic at relatively higher doses.

Even substances considered nontoxic can be harmful if the exposure is great enough. This is how people die even from drinking too much water. Overdosing on water can be called hydroneutremia, hypoxic encephalopathy, or water intoxication. It can happen when athletes replace water they lose from sweating without replacing electrolytes, when psychiatric patients abuse water, or when the drug Ecstasy impairs people’s judgment about the amount of water they’ve had. Water can also be used to murder someone. On March 26, 2003, eleven members of the Psi Epsilon Chi fraternity at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh were collectively charged with 150 crimes, including criminally negligent homicide. A police investigation found that the members hazed a student, Walter Dean Jennings, by forcing him to drink gallons of water poured through a funnel.

Compare the toxic dose of water that is needed to kill a person with the tiny doses of extraordinarily toxic substances that can kill. A fatal dose of ricin, a chemical extracted from castor bean plants, can fit on the head of a pin.

Chemical toxicity is also dependent on the length of time over which exposure occurs. The effects of short and long periods of exposure differ dramatically. Often the same chemical can produce what appear to be very different diseases, depending on the length of time over which the dose or doses were delivered. Most of these two types of diseases can be divided into acute or chronic illnesses.

Acute illnesses are caused by large doses of toxic substances delivered in a short period of time. The symptoms from short-term exposures usually occur during or right after the exposure and last only a brief time. Depending on the dose, the outcome can vary from complete recovery, to recovery with some level of disability, to—at worst—death.

Acute illnesses are the easiest to diagnose because their cause and effect are easily linked. For example, a glue sniffer who huffs solvents such as paint thinner or gasoline is immediately affected. Depending on the dose, symptoms begin with lightheadedness and a “high” feeling. If exposure continues, it may lead to more severe effects, such as headache, nausea, and loss of coordination. At even higher doses, unconsciousness and death could result. Repeated low-dose exposures over many months or years can cause chronic effects. They are the most difficult to diagnose. Usually, the symptoms are hardly noticeable until severe permanent damage has occurred. Symptoms appear very slowly, may vary from person to person, and may mimic other illnesses.

If the same solvents that made the glue sniffer high are put in an industrial paint and if many workers use this paint for decades, significant numbers of these workers will develop chronic illnesses. The illnesses will not be the same for all workers. For instance, chronic exposure to solvents during a lifetime of painting may produce dermatitis in some individuals, chronic liver or kidney effects in others, and nervous system damage in still others.

The most common disease among industrial painters, however, is a type of brain and nervous system damage that causes coordination problems, short-term memory loss, and clinical depression. This is a combination of symptoms recognized by workers’ compensation boards as a consequence of exposure to organic chemical solvents. Yet these are the same symptoms seen in alcoholics. When you dry out an alcoholic, you don’t suddenly find him transformed into a happy camper. He usually has subtle coordination deficits, short-term memory loss, and clinical depression. He may go right from taking antiabuse drugs to antidepressants. It is now clear that all solvents, including grain alcohol in excess, can cause narcosis and will damage the brain and the nervous system permanently over time.

Other effects in varying degrees of severity can also occur. They fall in a range that is partway between acute and chronic, such as “subacute” effects produced over weeks or months at lower doses than those that cause acute effects. Such in-between effects are also difficult to diagnose.

Lead is a good example of a substance that produces these in-between effects. Acute lead poisoning will bring about severe diarrhea, vomiting, and central nervous system depression in extremely high doses, even killing you. Low-level chronic exposure causes IQ deficits that may not even be noticed by the victim. Yet the lead exposure levels in between acute and low-level chronic doses can produce a baffling array of symptoms, from alternating diarrhea and constipation to high blood pressure and kidney problems, nerve conductivity decreases, and a wide range of mental states, from irritability to outright craziness. Several cases of lead poisoning of which I am personally aware were first suspected by smart professionals in the mental health field. Blood tests later confirmed their suspicions that their patients’ mental faculties were actually being affected by lead.

Every chemical is eliminated from the body at a different rate. Cumulative toxins, such as lead, are eliminated slowly. Repeated exposure will cause them to accumulate in the body. The rate at which each chemical is eliminated from the body is called its “toxic substance half-life.” Alcohol, for example, has a very short half-life. If you don’t test a suspected drunk driver’s blood within hours, the amount of alcohol in the blood will drop greatly. Other chemicals, such as lead, have a much longer half-life. Once the lead leaves your bloodstream and deposits in your bones, the lead has a twenty-five-year half-life in your body. This means that only half of the dose of lead you absorbed today from your food, air, and water will be excreted over the next twenty-five years. Lead is considered a cumulative toxic substance because the lead deposited in your body leaves so slowly that each successive dose adds to the amount that is retained.

Every single chemical has its own unique half-life in the body. There is a complete range of half-lives, from extremely short to almost a lifetime and everything in between. Chemicals with short half-lives cannot be found on medical tests unless you are tested shortly after exposure. Yet although the toxic chemical is not accumulating, the damage it does to your body may be increasing. For example, a retired industrial painter will not have any solvents in his or her body, but the damage to the liver, the kidneys, and the central nervous system caused by the solvents may persist and be permanent. There is no way to physically prove that the damage was from the solvent exposure, however, other than through the work records of the individual.

The total body burden is the total amount of a chemical that is present in the body from all sources. For example, we all have body burdens of lead from air, water, and food contamination. If we also work with lead-containing materials on the job, this exposure can add to the body’s burden. To determine the body burden of any single substance, we must know all of the exposures to that substance. Today, we are carrying body burdens of many chemicals and are often exposed to more than one chemical at a time. These chemicals may interact in the body in two primary ways: additively and synergistically. Exposure to two chemicals is considered additive when one chemical contributes to or adds to the toxic effects of the other. This can occur when both chemicals affect the body in similar ways. Working with paint thinner and drinking alcohol is an example because both the paint thinner and the alcohol affect the body in similar ways. Synergistic effects occur when two chemicals produce an effect that is greater than the total effects of each alone. For example, many deaths were caused when people consumed what was considered a socially acceptable amount of alcoholic beverages and then took a prescribed dose of barbiturate sleeping pills. Now that the synergistic effect of these two substances is understood, there are warnings about drinking alcohol while taking medications such as barbiturates.

Many chemicals are similar. Old-timers like me remember a solvent called carbon tetrachloride. It was available in gallon cans in every hardware store and was used to remove and thin paint, to clean fabrics, to remove tar, and for a host of other tasks. Most fire extinguishers also contained this chemical. It is not available now because it was found to be synergistic with alcohol. People who drank a few beers while using carbon tetrachloride could end up dead. This is why it is one of the very few chemicals banned by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act for use in consumer products.

The problem is that synergistic chemicals are usually identified only after there is evidence in the form of human exposures. When there is a high-enough pile of dead people, experts can be motivated to study the effects of the two chemicals and their interactions in the body. Only a tiny fraction of the chemicals in commerce have been studied for long-term effects—even one at a time. Clearly, there is no plan to start studying all of these chemicals two at a time, to discover their synergistic effects. So, once again, we are the guinea pigs.

I am personally very concerned about the synergistic effects of chemicals that were inhaled by people, including myself, who lived in Lower Manhattan around September 11, 2001. We now know that the dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center contained hundreds of toxic chemicals from the fallen buildings. Five buildings, two of them skyscrapers, were essentially ground to a powder. The hundreds of chemicals came from all of the cement, asbestos insulation, fiberglass insulation, computers and their monitors, windows, fluorescent lights, plastics, plywood and paneling, and much more. Then the pile burned for more than two months. The fire was so hot deep underground that even metal beams melted. Many of the first responders and the workers who labored there in the months after 9/11 are now sick, and some have died. In January, 2011, President Obama signed the 4.2 billion dollar James Zadroga 9/11 Health Compensation Act to address the health problems in these workers. The synergistic effects of that soup of chemicals to which they were exposed are clearly part of the problem.

Unlike ordinary toxic substances, the effects of carcinogens are not strictly dependent on the dose. No level of exposure is considered safe. Yet, the lower the dose, the lower the risk of developing cancer.

For this reason, exposure to carcinogens should be avoided altogether or kept as low as possible.

No dose of a carcinogen is considered safe because, theoretically, it takes only a single molecule of a carcinogen in the right person, in the right place in a cell, to change the cell’s genetic blueprint (DNA) and reprogram it as a cancer cell. Obviously, we can’t be fanatical about single molecule exposures, but it does explain why, no matter how low the dose, if a large-enough population is exposed, someone will get cancer.

There are several mechanisms by which cancer is caused, other than by a toxin directly affecting a cell’s DNA. For example, some substances irritate or damage organ tissues so they must repeatedly repair and regrow themselves. When cells in the body have to divide rapidly during regrowth, there is a greater risk that one of the cells will not divide properly and will create a cancer cell instead.

Occupational cancers typically occur five to forty years after someone has been exposed to a toxic substance. This period of time, during which there are no symptoms, is referred to as a latency period. Latency usually makes the diagnosis of occupational cancers very difficult. For example, the latency period for getting lung cancer after exposure to asbestos is ten to twenty years, while the latency period for developing mesothelioma from asbestos exposure is twenty to forty years.

Chemicals that affect fetal organ development—that is, chemicals that cause birth defects—are called teratogens. They are hazardous primarily during the first trimester. Two proven human teratogens

include the drug thalidomide and grain alcohol. Chemicals that are known to cause birth defects in animals are considered “suspect teratogens.” Among these are many solvents, lead, and other metals.

Often the teratogen is capable of causing damage only at a particular stage in the pregnancy. For example, thalidomide can cause limbs to fail to form only when the mother is exposed between the twentieth and the thirty-sixth day of pregnancy, while the fetus’s arms and leg buds are forming. Before or after these dates, thalidomide is harmless to the fetus.

The selectivity of teratogens will complicate any studies that attempt to determine reasons for the increase in autism, hyperactivity, and learning difficulties in children. The important factor is not only what the mother was exposed to; it is also likely to depend on exactly when she was exposed and what systems in the brain were being formed at that time. If these afflictions are due to the child being exposed after birth, it will have to be a significant exposure at exactly the time when certain brain development phases are occurring. Toxic chemicals can affect the growth and the development of the fetus at any stage of development. Lead, for example, not only damages the fetus, it damages children and adults at any stage of life. Toxic effects to the fetus can result from very small exposures to the mother at any time during pregnancy.

Now that we’ve seen how very complex toxicity is, we can look at how inadequate product label regulations are in providing warnings. The consumer label regulations are found in the United States Federal Hazardous Substances Act. These rules primarily require toxic warnings on products that are capable of causing acute (sudden onset) hazards.

Hazardous products are identified in the regulations by tests that expose animals to a single dose or period of exposure by skin or eye contact, inhalation, and ingestion. These tests are called the lethal dose (LD) tests by ingestion, skin, or eye contact or the lethal concentration (LC) tests by inhalation. The LD50 test by ingestion, for example, would be the test at a single dose that kills 50 percent of the test animals within two weeks of administration. To be “nontoxic,” the dose that kills 50 percent of the rats must be equal to or greater than 5 grams per kilogram of body weight. In other words, if 50 percent of the rats manage to survive for two weeks after receiving a large dose of 5 grams per kilogram of body weight, the toxicologist can call it “nontoxic.”

Remember that this testing will only find the dose that kills half of the test group, not the dose that kills one animal. And it’s only testing for acute reactions. For example, the powdered asbestos discussed at the beginning of this chapter was labeled “nontoxic,” based on all of the LD50 and LC50 tests, because all of the animals would appear healthy after exposure. Cancer takes much longer to develop.

A for chronic hazards, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act was amended in the 1990s to include four types of chronic hazard: cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological damage. If the chemicals damage our livers or any other organs not covered by the law, tough luck. Add to this the fact that the Chemical Abstract Service ( has registered over 59,000,000 chemicals while only about 1000 chemicals have evaluated for cancer effects worldwide. This means the vast majority of the chemicals we use have never been tested for cancer or any other chronic effects!

Even the trade secret organic pigments and dyes in children’s paints and crayons are untested. These products are not made with food grade dyes—and some mothers would need to know if they were because of their child’s particular sensitivities. Instead, these toxicologist-certified art products containing untested colorants are labeled “nontoxic.” We should ask the toxicologists to show us how they mathematically calculate the risk assessment required by law for pigments on which there is no toxicity data! It’s impossible.

Many highly toxic substances have been and still are used in art materials. This will always be the case, because colors that will remain unfaded on paintings for hundreds of years require the use of substances such as lead, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and a host of other toxic metals and some very complex organic chemical pigments. There is no way to make traditional art materials “green.” Yet if toxic substances must be used, the labels should provide the information and the warnings that consumers need to use them safely. When it comes to children’s art materials, toxic pigments should not be used at all. After all, how long does your child’s grade school artwork have to remain unfaded on the refrigerator door?


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