Gupta: Chemicals around us – we must know more
October 26th, 2010
06:33 AM ET

Gupta: Chemicals around us – we must know more

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

This morning, I will be testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. When I received the call to do this, truthfully, I was a little nervous. The topic is “Risks of toxic chemicals to children’s health,” something I have been interested in for a long time, and moreso after having three kids of my own. In fact, for the last year, I investigated the interplay between toxic chemicals and human health for a pair of documentaries on CNN.

I learned more than a series of text books could’ve taught me. I spent time with citizens in Mossville, Louisiana, arguably one of the most toxic cities in America. For countless hours, I spoke to government officials and private sector expert scientists both on and off camera. And, I looked carefully at the research about the toxics we live with everyday. The most eye-opening part was how much we don’t know.

While I am not a toxicologist or chemist by training, as a neurosurgeon, I have spent most of my life learning and trying to perfect the scientific method. Here is what I can tell you: In science, we expect absolute proof.  What’s the old adage? In God we trust; everyone else bring data.  But, the reality is, we don’t always have that proof. And, it is the area of potential impact of toxics on human health where the conventional scientific method is thoroughly challenged.

As things stand now: Out of the roughly 80,000 chemicals in commerce, only around 200 have been tested, and only five have been restricted. I guess I always assumed watchdog groups and the government had evaluated and signed off on the safety of the chemicals we encounter in our lives. It’s not to say that all chemicals are bad. Again, it is how much we don’t know.

Senate panel examining how chemicals in daily life affect kids' health

Make no mistake, learning things too late can be wildly dangerous. In the 1940s, the pesticide DDT was declared harmless to humans and animals. Advertisements showed housewives cheerfully spraying it all around the house, on the couches, even spraying the dog. Today, DDT is banned in this country. We sometimes find out chemicals we thought were harmless are not safe at all.

Lead is another example. Over the last 50 years, the acceptable levels of lead in the human body have been lowered every decade. Now, we know no amount of lead is safe. So many adults exposed to lead as children who suffered a whole range of damage to the brain and nervous system wish they would’ve known then' what they know now.

Experts all over the country told me a similar thing. In the United States, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. And, the only way they are proven guilty is by health effects turning up in people who have been exposed, often years later. In some ways, that makes us all guinea pigs.

And, in case you are curious: What I am describing isn’t the same all over the world. The European Union has adopted a different standard to evaluate chemicals. It is more of a precautionary approach, and goes by the acronym REACH. Simply, the burden of showing a chemical is safe has shifted from the regulator to the producer. As a result citizens there know more about the air they breathe, the food they eat and the water they drink. People in the industry also told me this precautionary stance has not affected companies' bottom lines. Besides the cost saving in waste disposal, experts seemed confident the precautionary principle would spark innovation, create fewer hazardous chemicals and allow companies to remain as profitable as ever.

This blog is already too long, and I have to go find a suitable tie to wear, and yet – I didn’t even write about what inspired me to show up before the Senate today in the first place. I have three daughters now, and the world in which they will live will be different than the one in which I grew up. How exactly it will be different is up to us.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.