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The Daily Tar Heel

Ending exposure to harmful chemicals

Looking at the above caption with my name and major may make you wonder: What in the world is environmental health science?
In short, it’s the study of how toxins in the environment affect human health.

Environmental health has been a hot topic in the news all over the world in the past few years.

You might remember the BPA scare from last year, when news surfaced that the chemical bisphenol A, used in the production of baby bottles, had been found to have negative effects on brain development in infants.

Following the 2008 ban on BPA in Canada, an unsuccessful push was made to ban it in the U.S. Although it still is not banned in the U.S., many companies have stopped using the chemical due to consumer complaints.

The question is: Why are we being exposed to these harmful chemicals anyway?

The answer: When it comes to environmental health policy, the U.S. uses the reactionary principle. Following this principle, a chemical is banned only after significant scientific evidence has declared it hazardous. The problem is that significant scientific evidence can hardly ever be found since scientists rarely agree on which chemicals are hazardous.

Industry lobbyists can capitalize on this lack of significant evidence by pointing to the studies that claim their chemical is safe.
Consequently, many hazardous products remain in production until proven guilty, causing millions of Americans to be exposed to harmful chemicals every day.

Chemical bans in the European Union are based on an idea opposite to the reactionary principle: the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle is exactly what it sounds like: It represents a cautious attitude toward the toxicity of chemicals. As soon as a chemical is suspected of being harmful to humans, it is banned until the chemical manufacturer can prove that it’s safe.
Researchers and organizations in the U.S. have been advocating for our country to make the switch to the precautionary principle. Their intent is to reduce Americans’ exposure to hazardous chemicals.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has issued a statement declaring its opposition to the precautionary principle on the grounds that the principle assumes the worst and results in immediate restrictions.

Is this actually true? Does the precautionary principle cause Europeans to miss out on products that Americans are able to enjoy?
Well yes, sometimes it does. For example, until 2008, the energy drink Red Bull was banned for 12 years in France because of health concerns about one ingredient, taurine. But after taurine was cleared, the French were free to go back to enjoying their Red Bull.

So with consequences as minimal as missing out on a few late-night energy boosts, it’s clear that the U.S. needs to adopt the precautionary principle in order to stop allowing Americans to be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

Until that happens, you can avoid exposure to harmful chemicals by following the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences’ recommendations about potentially hazardous products at:

Sarah Dugan is a senior environmental health science major from Asheville. Contact her at:

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