There is a serious disconnect between what the public assumes to be the case and what the reality is when it comes to product safety. Most people believe that if a product is on the market it has been proven to be safe. There are numerous products that have been brought to market without proper testing that later have been proven to be harmful. The most recent example of this is e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes were introduced to the market in 2015. The manufacturers claimed they were a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes and could even be used to help stop smoking cigarettes. The e-cigarette company Juul became the most popular e-cigarette brand in the United States by the end of 2017 and had a market share of 72% as of September 2018.
By 2018, 3.6 million middle- and high-school students were current or past users in the last 30 days of e-cigarettes according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro held a press conference on Sept. 13 in which she claimed that the FDA skirted the authority that Congress had given it in 2009 that required manufacturers of new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to conduct “pre-market reviews” to prove that a product was safe before making it available for purchase.
With television ads promoting e-cigarettes as attractive and safe, their use exploded. As of October 1, 2019, 1,080 lung injury cases associated with using e-cigarette, or vaping, products have been reported to CDC from 48 states and 1 U.S. territory. Eighteen deaths have been confirmed in 15 states. All patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette, or vaping, products. Now, people are finally asking, “How did this product get onto the marketplace without any safety testing?”
Flame retardants, too
Flame retardants are another product that entered the marketplace and then were consistently removed for safety reasons, only to be replaced with another product that was then also removed for safety reasons. Flame retardants have an interesting history.
Starting with asbestos, one flame retardant after another was proven to be harmful after the flame retardant was on the market for a long time and applied to many consumer products. In 1929 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in powerl ine transformers to keep them cool. PCBs were used for over 50 years until they were finally proven unsafe for humans.
The next flame retardant to come on the market was polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These products were added to furniture, plastics and electronics. They were used for 30 years until they too were phased out because they too were proven unsafe. Many studies linked them to many toxic effects, including effects on thyroid function, immune systems and neurotoxicity during development.
Many more flame retardant substitutes were formulated and used until finally, California, in 2018, banned the use of most flame retardants in residential upholstered furniture, children’s products and mattress foam.
Firefighters began asking state legislatures to ban flame retardants because of their ability to cause cancer. They claimed, “These chemicals don’t make our homes safer from fire-they pose health risks to firefighters and consumers.”
Each time an untested flame retardant entered the marketplace, people became exposed to the chemical that remained on the market for years. Today everyone in the United States has flame retardants in their bodies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have listed the adverse health effects of many flame retardants as causing: endocrine and thyroid disruption; impacts to the immune system; reproductive toxicity; cancer; and adverse effects on fetal and child development.
Waste rubber tire playground mulch
The last example is shredded waste rubber tires that are used as the surfacing in small children’s playgrounds, and shredded rubber tires made into crumb rubber which is used as the infill in athletic fields.
There is one waste tire for every person each and every year and the responsibility for getting rid of them falls to the EPA.
It was known for years that the manufacturing of rubber tires caused workers to have serious health effects including cancers.
When EPA’s Scrap Tire Work Group met in 2007, their goal was to figure out ways to reduce the huge piles of waste tires they knew that waste tires had toxicity issues.
Playground rubber mulch was marketed as protecting small children from falls when on swings and jungle gyms while playing in their playgrounds. The message became all about falls with no mention of the toxins in the rubber mulch.
The crumb rubber infill in synthetic turf fields was promoted as a safer was to play sports, and allowing more “play time” than a natural grass fields would allow, and a surface more resistant to weather events. These attributes were pushed while the toxins in the fields were not mentioned.
In all these cases, the products entered the market with the public assuming the products were safe. When a product looks as if it might be harmful, it is more often than not left to non-profits and academic institutions to undertake the research that is needed to prove the harmfulness of a product.
Both non-profit and academic institutions are places that can least afford to do this work.
Government must step-up and do a better job of protecting the public from harmful products that get onto the marketplace without proper testing for safety.
Nancy Alderman is President of Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a non-profit organization of physicians and public health professionals dedicated to protecting the public from environmental harms through education and changing public policies that will better protect the public’s health.