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Chemical Groundhog Day

Posted 14/04/2010 by RoseS

Do you ever wake up in the morning and wonder whether you have flashed back to another day? In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character is stuck in the rut of having to live through the same day over and over again. The point is, however, he learns from each one of his daily re-runs, and…..but I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film.

In the chemical world we seem to be stuck in our own series of re-runs, particularly with regard to chemical safety. The latest concerns the safety of triclosan, and before that it was bisphenol A (BPA). The cycle goes from someone expressing concern about a chemical, the regulatory authorities become involved, research is done on the substance, and the results are published showing that there is no hazard and the furore dies down; until, that is, someone else does some more research that throws up different results, and the whole cycle begins again. And at some point in the cycle a politician, eager to make his or her mark, jumps on the bandwagon and the debate such as it is goes up a notch.

In the UK, the spotlight has turned again onto BPA, with calls for a ban on its use in any plastic for baby bottles or food containers, based on new scientific studies that suggest it causes a range of diseases including heart disease, breast cancer, obesity and hyperactivity. Denmark has recently decided to ban BPA, following Canada and three US states, while France is reported to be considering a ban. The UK Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority, however, have resisted previous calls for bans, as they say research has found BPA to be safe.

At the same time in the US, a new re-run of the triclosan cycle has just begun with the Food & Drug Administration re-emphasising its ongoing scientific review of the substance, and updating the information about triclosan on its website, following receipt of a letter from Edward Markey, chairman of the US House of Representatives’ energy and commerce subcommittee, requesting information about the review. The FDA says ‘it does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time’.

But Markey is not satisfied and is calling for a ban on many of the applications of triclosan, including consumer soaps and hand-washes, products intended for use by children and products intended to come into contact with food. ‘In addition, I will soon introduce legislation to speed up the [US] government’s efforts to evaluate and regulate other substances that may pose similar health concerns,’ he says.

The US Soap & Detergent Association has been quick to respond, particularly to the FDA’s comments that ‘existing data raise valid concerns about the [health] effects of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients’ and that it is ‘not aware of any evidence that antibacterial washes are superior to plain soap and water’. For anyone wanting to look at the history of this particular cycle, the SDA’s website shows the course of the arguments over disinfectants, and particularly triclosan: http://www.cleaning101.com/antibacterial/#3.

Now there is no intention here to make any judgments on these issues, but one does wonder about the overall costs involved in repeating these re-runs and recycling of old arguments. In terms of potential hazardous substances, chemistry can be an inexact science – it is impossible to say that any chemical is completely safe, even water and the oxygen in the air we breathe, as any chemist would admit. And what is the point of the work that is being done on REACH in Europe and other initiatives elsewhere, if decisions are still being made on an ad hoc basis? Are we doomed to re-runs of Chemical Groundhog Day, but without the learning experience?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    15/07/2012 06:45

    (paraphrasing here) that the last thing she would want for her food allergic child is to have other kids in her child’s cloarsosm know they COULD have treats, but couldn’t because of THAT kid with an allergy. The person also said other kids would whine that “who would want to be in that class with so and so….” I was the food allergic kid in the cloarsosm (I'm still allergic, in college now) and from what I remember, what the Facebook commenter said is exactly how I felt. Whatever food envy I experienced, I did not want the other kids to have to change their eating habits because of me. For birthdays at school, my mother sent me with my own (delicious) treat and that was all I needed. I want to describe a recent interaction with some friends to further my point. We had gotten Chipotle (a surprisingly allergy-friendly place) for dinner and were thinking about getting some coffee at Starbucks. As we drove there, a friend saw an ice-cream place that she'd been wanting to try. Immediately everyone in the car was on board. Then another friend said to me, Wait, maybe we shouldn't you don't want to sit and watch us eat, do you? Of course I didn't want to sit and watch them eat. But I especially didn't want to deprive them of ice cream because of me. Yes, I know nobody should choose food over their friends, and if I'd said I wanted to just get coffee I'm sure nobody would have voiced a complaint. But I and other food allergic children, I suspect don't want the world to revolve around my allergy. I want to feel as normal as possible.So by all means, instigate a food-free birthday policy. But emphasize the other health benefits lowering obesity, for example over the allergy issue. If my school had a no treats policy, and I knew it was because of me, I would have felt guilty at every birthday party.