Politics & Other Mistakes: Poison control priorities

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Remember dioxin?

Chances are you haven’t thought much about that highly toxic substance in years, because who wants to think about something so unpleasant. Besides, over the past three decades, the government has passed a bunch of laws that reduced the amount of dioxin produced by paper mills, trash incinerators and other industries. These swell new levels, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, can still “cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.”

In other words, we’ve decided we can live with some dioxin so long as we don’t worry about it too much. Because worrying is bad for your health.

Meanwhile, the dioxin that already exists – the EPA says it can take more than a decade for the stuff to break down – and the smaller amounts of dioxin we’re still producing – it’s not like we suddenly decided we could do without paper or burning our refuse – keeps accumulating in the food chain. The only thing that really changed is we no longer pay attention to it.

Al DiamonIt appears the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has figured out that dioxin isn’t the only problem that can be solved by encouraging public indifference. The DEP is now applying the same scientific principle to PFAS.

PFAS (pronounced “urinate quickly”) is an acronym standing for “Probably Fatal And Soon” and defines a class of substances known as “forever chemicals,” because unlike dioxin, they never break down and become harmless. Instead, they accumulate in the environment in places like sludge from sewage-treatment plants that used to be spread on farm fields as fertilizer. PFAS then migrates into drinking water, crops, domestic and wild animals, and people.

The health effects of PFAS exposure aren’t as severe as ingesting dioxin. As far as we know. Which is not very far. The EPA has concluded that “certain levels” of PFAS in humans may cause reproductive problems, developmental delays in children, cancer and a variety of other horrible stuff. But determining what levels will require further study.

The American Chemistry Council says PFAS is a “critical component in modern technology” and not all types of PFAS have been proven dangerous. So, it’s that further-study thing, again. In the meantime, do the dioxin shuffle that worked so well before.

Assuming you don’t live on a contaminated farm, are you still at risk of PFAS? Yep. It shows up in a wide variety of consumer products including non-stick pans, paint, carpets and fast-food wrappers. It’s been detected in clothing, cosmetics and car parts. Your home is a cesspool of the stuff.

Fortunately, there’s a way for you to find out what products contain PFAS. The Maine Legislature (warning: may be toxic to your mental health) passed a law last year requiring companies doing business in the state to report by Jan. 1 whether they’re selling anything that contains PFAS.

Simple? Of course not. The DEP, which is in charge of enforcing the new law, hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned during the dioxin scare. If there are enough delays, the public might lose interest in the issue. With that in mind, environmental regulators have been granting extensions of the reporting deadline to companies that asked for them – and to some companies that didn’t.

According to the Bangor Daily News, the exemptions from the new law are being handed out to businesses and trade groups that claim they’ll have difficulty complying with this regulation. “Reducing the demand on limited laboratory capacity is a priority consideration,” DEP Deputy Commissioner David Madore told the newspaper.

Obviously, that’s way more important than public health.

The BDN contacted more than dozen businesses that were granted delays, several of which said they never asked for one and were unaware they’d gotten it. Environmental activists see the insidious hand of lobbyists behind this softening of the law. “The chemical industry does not want to report this information,” Sarah Woodbury of Defend Our Health Action told the Bangor paper. “They do not want people to know whether they are being exposed to this stuff.”

They’re hoping that, as with dioxin, one of the side effects of exposure to PFAS is memory loss.

Does your cheeseburger taste like Agent Orange? If so, email [email protected].

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