Top Scientist Talks Chemical Safety

Senior Scientist Richard Denison
Environmental Defense Fund
I recently had the opportunity to sit face to face with one of the world's leading environmental scientists in Washington, DC.  Richard Denison's PhD in molecular biophysics and biochemistry is from Yale, and he's spent 27 years making science relevant to people's lives. Denison serves as a Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, frequently testifying before Congress about topics of the day, and serving on the Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the  National Academy of Sciences. Since the EDF is a founding member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, I asked Denison to explain the science behind the Safe Chemicals Act, which would put common sense limits on toxic chemicals.  Here's what we discussed during my visit for the National Stroller Brigade:

Q:  Why should every family care about this; why does this affect every family in America?

A: "This is really an issue about our health.  We're learning more and more that chemicals can, in fact, impact our health.  We see certain diseases and disorders that are rising:  infertility, childhood cancers, learning disabilities.  And there's growing evidence that chemicals can contribute to these diseases and disorders. We've gone for decades with uncontrolled use of these chemicals and we're beginning to pay the costs of that.  What we need is a system that looks at each of these chemicals and asks the question, 'is it safe in the way that we're using that chemical?' If not, we need to take steps to make sure that we're using chemicals only that have been shown to be safe."

Q: Is that called the precautionary principle?

A: "Certainly we're advocating for an approach that doesn't wait until we have absolute certainty and proof beyond any shadow of a doubt before we can act, because we'll never have that level of proof from most chemicals.  But we need a system so that we can begin to act when the evidence starts to mount that there's a problem.  Rather than wait until it's too late, until so many people have been affected by the chemical, that we've already seen the damage done."

Q: Isn't one of the industry arguments that it's impossible to comply?  Is there a moderate place where business can live with this?

A: "I think there are ways to find common ground with business, where they need the certainty that customers are comfortable that the products they're making and using are safe.  We want that too.  And so I think we need a system that balances the need for our economy to thrive, for people to have jobs, but also one that insures the safety and health of our families.  And I think that is a possibility to find a way to balance those two legitimate needs."

Q: What about trade secrets?

A: "Businesses have a right to protect certain types of information.  The very secret formula of a product or who their customers are is legitimate propriety information.  But  health and safety information about chemicals is not.  There's a right to know that information.  Because as an individual in the population who might be exposed to that chemical I have a right to know what's known about it and what isn't known about it.  So that's where I would draw the line.  Certain business information certainly can and should be kept private, but the health and safety information about chemicals needs to be made public."

You can follow Richard Denison's blog Chemicals and Nanomaterials at the Environmental Defense Fund website for the latest from him and his colleagues on what's happening in the world of environmental science and your right to know.