Yes, there is a field called “toxicology” and it’s all about determining what’s toxic and what’s not. Toxicologist Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT, a regular guest who is helping us understand the toxicity of common chemicals we may be frequently exposed to. Dr. Gilbert is Director and Founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and author of A Small Dose of Toxicology- The Health Effects of Common Chemicals.He received his Ph.D. in Toxicology in 1986 from the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, is a Diplomat of American Board of Toxicology, and an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington. His research has focused on neurobehavioral effects of low-level exposure to lead and mercury on the developing nervous system. Dr. Gilbert has an extensive website about toxicology called Toxipedia, which includes a suite of sites that put scientific information in the context of history, society, and culture. www.toxipedia.org
LISTEN TO OTHER SHOWS WITH STEVEN G. GILBERT, PhD, DABT
- Toxics in the Air We Breathe—Indoors and Outdoors—and How it Affects Our Health
- Toxic Solvents and Vapors
- How Pesticides Can Harm Your Health
- Why Do People Doubt the Science Behind Toxics?
- There is No Safe Level for Lead Exposure
- Fewer Chemicals Make Healthier Babies
- Why We Shouldn’t Have Nuclear Power Plants
- How Mercury Affects Your Health
- Persistant Bioaccumulative Toxicants
- How Endocrine Disruptors Disrupt Our Endocrine Systems
- The Dangers of Exposure to Radiation and How to Protect Yourself
- Toxics Throughout History—Exposure to Toxic Substances is Not New
- The Ethics of Toxics
- How to Determine Your Risk of Harm From an Exposure to a Toxic Chemical
- The Basic Principles of Toxicology
TOXIC FREE TALK RADIO
Meet a Toxicologist
Host: Debra Lynn Dadd
Guest: Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT
Date of Broadcast: August 22, 2013
DEBRA: Hi, I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And you’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio where we talk about how to thrive in a toxic world. And we need to have all kinds of information because there are toxic chemicals all around us in the consumer products that we use every day. Just walking out our front doors, there are toxic chemicals falling from the sky, and pesticides on lawns, and car exhausts. And all around us, there are toxic chemicals.
But we can be free of the negative health effects of all these toxic chemicals by learning how to minimize our exposure to them, and remove them from our bodies.
Today is Thursday, August 22, 2013. I’m here in Clearwater, Florida. And it’s cloudy, maybe there might be thunderstorms, so if you lose me, that’s why, but I’ll be right back.
Today, we’re going to be talking with Dr. Steven Gilbert, PhD, DABT. He’s a toxicologist, the director and founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and author of the book, A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals.
He received his PhD in toxicology in 1986 from the University of Rochester New York, and he’s a diplomat of the American Board of Toxicology and an affiliate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the University of Washington.
So he has a lot of experience with toxic chemicals. And 1986, that was about when I started getting interested in toxic chemicals.
Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Gilbert.
STEVEN GILBERT: You’re very welcome. It’s nice to be here.
DEBRA: Thank you. So tell us, how did you get interested in toxic chemicals, of all things?
STEVEN GILBERT: It came out a little bit sideways. My background is actually in electrical engineering. And I did a lot of computer work after I’ve graduated. And a lot of that was related to testing and designing products for testing on toxic chemicals.
But I came into it that way. And I got very interested in the effects of chemicals particularly in the developing nervous system and how to prevent chemicals such as lead and mercury from affecting developing nervous systems.
I went back to school about six years after I graduated to get my PhD and really devoted myself to trying to lessen the effects of chemicals on the developing nervous system.
DEBRA: That’s a very good thing to do. We share that interest in preventing the effects of toxic chemicals.
STEVEN GILBERT: We really focus on prevention than treatment. It’s great, but we really need to focus on prevention.
DEBRA: I totally agree. So what does a toxicologist do?
STEVEN GILBERT: That’s a really good question. Toxicologists do a range of things. And one reason I like about the field of toxicology is you can do it for testing chemicals, you can do regulatory work on policy development, determining what chemical levels might be safe in the environment or in the food supply or in the water supply. So, there’s a range of jobs in the state and federal area.
There are also pharmaceutical companies. They employ a lot of toxicologists for developing new drugs and testing the health and safety of the new drugs. Pesticide manufacturers, so the agriculture industry, employ toxicologists.
So, there’s really a wide range. I don’t do any research anymore, only in the academic environment of course. A lot of toxicologists is working in the academic environment, looking at the health effects of chemicals.
I don’t do any research anymore. My focus is really on how we talk about toxicology, how we inform people.
So, my view is we know how to do more and more about less and less. We’re really good at doing research. What we don’t do such a good job of connecting the dots and really getting information out there to people so we can make better decisions about our health.
DEBRA: I actually agree with that. And that’s part of why I inform the public about toxicology information. It’s because I don’t think that the field is informing the public enough. I would agree with you on that.
STEVEN GILBERT: I really appreciate what you’re trying to do here because I think it is really important to talk about these issues and get more information out there. We know a lot of stuff. We just don’t use it well.
DEBRA: Yes, I agree. And that’s one of the reasons why I asked you to be on the show, and I’m so glad that you’re here. And I hope you’ll come again, and maybe again, and again and again because I only know as much as I can learn as a consumer, and somebody that didn’t even take chemistry in school. But I just sat down when I got to a point in my life where I needed to understand toxic chemicals because they we remaking me sick.
I just sat down with a chemistry dictionary, and I looked up formaldehyde. And then it said this is how formaldehyde is made or something. And then I went and looked up the other chemicals that went into it.
And that’s how I learned about chemistry, it was just reading a chemistry dictionary. But you’re so trained in this field that all of us who are listening, and everybody in the world need to be hearing from people like you, to educate us because we all, in the world that we’re living in today, we all need to be toxicologists. We all need to be understanding the chemicals around us, and knowing how to protect ourselves from them.
STEVEN GILBERT: I think that’s really true because we do need to know the basics. And that’s why I wrote my book, A Small Dose of Toxicology, as an introductory book on toxicology and the health effects of the common chemicals that we’re all exposed to.
I think it’s very important to learn at least the principles of that because a lot of decisions are made around toxic chemicals.
DEBRA: They are. And I haven’t read all of your book, but I’ve been reading it in small doses. And I really love the approach that you have. I love that you’re tying everything that you’re saying to daily life, and I love that you’re saying things in a simple way, and then also providing more resources.
I see a lot of similarities between what I’m doing and what you’re doing, especially look at A Small Dose of Toxicology. Some of the principles that you covered were the same things that I felt I needed to cover in my book, so that people could have a basic understanding. But of course, you’re writing about it from your knowledge as a trained toxicologist where I’m just writing about it as somebody who reads about it, but hasn’t been trained.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, that’s a very important perspective because we all are affected by toxic chemicals. I think that perspective is really important.
But just to quickly mention, the Small Dose is free. It’s a free e-book. So it can be downloaded off the web for free.
DEBRA: Yes, and I would suggest that everybody go and download it because it really is—even if you only read part of it, the parts of it that explain the basics of toxicology are really, really excellent. And these are things that every single person needs to know on the planet. You need to know this like you need to know the alphabet or how to add and subtract.
It’s just basics of life in the way the world is today.
And in fact, let’s just talk more about—right now, let’s talk more about what’s on your website. It’s Toxipedia.org. And that’s where you can go to find the book. T-O-X-I-P-E-D-I-A dot org.
And why don’t you tell us about different kinds of resources you have there? The thing that’s important to say about this, why this is different from other websites about toxic chemicals is that you really explore the world of toxicology in the context of history, society and culture.
And so one of the things that you can find out on this website, for example, is the whole history of toxicology going back to ancient times. Toxic chemicals didn’t just appear in the 1940s when they started making pesticides. Toxic chemicals exist, and
Dr. Gilbert really put the whole field together in a way that is very fascinating.
So, tell us more about what they can find on your website.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you, Debra. I think the history, putting the science in the context of history, society and culture, is very important. We just can’t throw a lot of facts out there. And there’s a lot of [heartfelt] issues around toxicology that I think need to be explored. And we have a lot of lessons learned if we look historically.
So, I try to put the chemicals and the other information in that context, in the context of history and society, so we know where we’re coming from and know how to avoid some of these mistakes.
One of the things we did was to make an interactive poster called Milestone to Toxicology. So the milestone poster is a colorful poster. It has little squares on it. You can explore the squares. You open it up. It’s a PDF file. You can click on one of those squares and get more information.
That poster has now been translated into over 10 languages. So it’s in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, French, Italian, Turkish, Arabic. It’s a very fun poster, fun information.
So, one thing we tried to do is make toxicological information fun. We also have a big education section. And that explores Small Dose. And there’s material for a 1- and 2-day toxicology courses. Each chapter of the Small Dose book comes with a PowerPoint presentation that you can download to help teaching the material.
We have sections on ethics. I think ethics and values, how to make decisions, is really important.
We also support a number of other websites. We just have a pretty wide range, one of the most—
DEBRA: I need to interrupt you for a minute because we do need to go to our station break. And then we’ll be right back, and we can continue.
I’m talking with Dr. Steven Gilbert, toxicologist, author of A Small Dose of Toxicology. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And this is Toxic Free Talk Radio.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And my guest today is Dr. Steven Gilbert who is a toxicologist and author of A Small Dose of Toxicology. And he’s got a great website, Toxipedia.org, T-O-X-I-P-E-D-I-A dot-org.
And before I interrupted him, Dr. Gilbert was telling us about what’s on his website. So why don’t you go on and finish what you want to say about that?
STEVEN GILBERT: I was just talking about the different sections we have. We have a lot of material there. It’s a free Wiki-based site. We’re always looking for contributions.
For example, on the front page, I was just mentioning the ethics where we talk about environmental justice issues and the decision-making process. We have a section on the precautionary principle. And hopefully, we’ll get into that a little bit more later.
We also have a section called the Toxicology History room which has a number of posters or contributors from people around the world. You can actually request the Toxicology History posters to be at your facility.
We have a section called Lessons Learned where we have different essays explore past issues around toxicology. We have a Day-to-Day Issues Around Toxicology. I tweet about this every day. I put up an issue or a historical fact that occurred on toxicology.
So, we try to make toxicology interesting. We support a number of other sites like the World Library of Toxicology. ASmallDoseOf.org supports the A Small Dose of Toxicology book.
We have new a website coming up—it’s just getting going—called Women in Peace. And we have a site called Washington Nuclear Museum and Education that we support that focuses on Hanford and toxicology issues around Hanford, the most contaminated site in the Northern Hemisphere. It was used to create plutonium for World War II.
And we also have a site called Integrative Pest Management, IPMopedia, that looks at Integrative Pest Management issues.
So, we cover a wide range of areas. And you can search Toxipedia. I hope you enjoy exploring it.
DEBRA: I’ve been enjoying exploring it very much. And I’m sure I haven’t seen all of it yet. There’s a lot there. And it’s all presented in an interesting and simple way. So very well done.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you.
DEBRA: I also wanted to say that it was interesting to me when I started reading A Small Dose of Toxicology—one thing I want to make sure that everybody sees is, and I always have trouble finding it, is that you have a page where you talk about different toxic chemicals and give background on that, such as you do in A Small Dose of Toxicology has a small list. But you have more on your website.
And I always have difficulty finding it. But it’s there. So people should search for it.
What I wanted to say about the chemicals that are in A Small Dose of Toxicology is that I had to smile when I read this because the number one toxic chemical that you list, not that you were rating them, as being the most important, but the first one that you chose to address was alcohol—alcoholic beverages.
And in my book, Toxic-Free, that was number two. And then the second toxic chemical—and the reason I wanted to mention this is because people usually think of toxic chemicals as being something like formaldehyde or benzene or something like that. But in your book, A Small Dose of Toxicology, the first one you address is alcoholic beverages, and the second one you address is caffeine like in coffee and chocolate, and all those other caffeine-laden foods.
And number three is nicotine.
In my book, Toxic-Free, the number one that I discussed first was cigarettes, nicotine and cigarettes.
So we have a very similar approach as to what we started our books with.
STEVEN GILBERT: Very good.
DEBRA: A lot of similarity. And then we go off in different directions. But the fact that we both started with the basics of toxicology and the same toxic chemicals, that was pretty interesting.
STEVEN GILBERT: That’s very good. I think that’s very important because those are chemicals we’re all commonly exposed to. We need to understand the potential health effects of those chemicals.
DEBRA: We do. And I think that if somebody is drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages, if they’re drinking a lot of coffee, there’s the caffeine, and there’s the pesticide, and all the pollution in the water and everything, or if they’re smoking a lot of cigarettes, if they’re doing any of those three things, in my opinion, I think that those are going to make them sick. And you could eliminate some other toxic chemical down the line like formaldehyde on bed sheets or something, but it’s not going to help to do that if you’re doing these big things—those big three things. Good. I’m glad we agree.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, we totally agree on that.
DEBRA: So could you tell us about individual sensitivities and how people react or are poisoned in different ways?
STEVEN GILBERT: I think a really important issue is individual sensitivity. I think, as we understand the genome better and sciences progress, that’s become more and more important, understanding who is most sensitive to chemicals.
For example, pesticides are a good example of that where some people are more sensitive to pesticides because they don’t metabolize them as well. So you get what’s called the healthy worker effect.
So workers that work in pesticide fields tend to metabolize pesticides faster and deal with them. People that are slow metabolizers don’t work well in pesticide fields and tend to drop out of the industry. You’ve got people that are more resilient to pesticides.
There are many chemicals that are like that. Lead, for example, the more we’ve learned about lead, the more we found that people are more sensitive to lead at a very young age. The developing nervous systems is exclusively sensitive.
So, taking into account age, the health effects of chemicals is really, really important. The developing nervous system is explicitly sensitive to pesticides, lead, mercury. And we’ve learned that over the last 20 years just how sensitive that is.
And metabolism is very important, how well you metabolize a compound. And your genetics is very important […]
So, there are a lot of issues. Always remember that kids are not little adults because they eat more, breathe more, and drink more than adults do per body weight. So there’s sensitivity like that. And kids have that hand-to-mouth behavior. So there are a lot of interesting issues you need to take into account when looking at toxic effects of the chemical.
DEBRA: So that was one of the things that was of interest to me as I was studying and learning these things too because you think that, like you read in a book this chemical is toxic or that chemical is toxic, but then how is it toxic to you? And that’s a whole different question.
After we take our commercial break here, I want to ask you this question about how is it determined that a chemical is toxic because there’s so much variation in how our bodies receive the toxicity and what our bodies to with these toxic chemicals, how we can figure out what’s really toxic. And there are so many variations about that.
So we’re going to address that after this commercial break. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. I’m talking to Steven Gilbert. He’s a toxicologist, Dr. Steven Gilbert, author of A Small Dose of Toxicology. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And my guest today is Dr. Steven Gilbert, PhD, DABT. He’s the author of A Small Dose of Toxicology and the publisher of a huge and wonderful website on toxicology called Toxipedia.org, T-O-X-I-P-E-D-I-A dot org.
Before the break, I asked a question, and I want to repeat the question because I really have two questions, and they’re related to each other. I think what I asked you before the break was to tell us about the individual differences that we have in our bodies that would make a chemical more or less toxic to us. But there’s another question too.
You probably need to answer these one at a time, but I want to ask them both at once.
There’s a lot of controversy about whether or not a chemical is toxic. And so I’m looking at a lot of industrial things that are happening like manufacturers, and regulations, which I think we’re going to talk about later if we have some time. But people are saying toxic chemicals need to be regulated or we should be labeling things in certain ways.
But then there’s a question about what are the toxic chemicals that need to be regulated and is the chemical toxic.
Those are the two things I’d like us to talk about next. Big questions.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, those are huge questions. One quick example on different sensitivities is with caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. And some people can drink caffeine at dinner time, and not have any problems with going to sleep. Other people like myself will only drink caffeine in the afternoon or 2 o’clock at the latest because it does affect our sleep.
So, we respond and react to chemicals very differently. And that’s just a simple example. Some people get a headache when they stop drinking caffeine. And that’s another example of individual sensitivity. It varies widely with our genetics the effects of different chemicals.
DEBRA: Yes, it does.
STEVEN GILBERT: Now, to the other question of determining toxicity, we know how to do that in a lot of cases. For example, the Food and Drug Administration requires that new drugs go under extensive testing to show health effects and also efficacies (so does it do what it says it’s supposed to do). So new drugs that come out in the market have gone through extensive animals and human testing before they’re allowed to be marketed. And this came from historical issues—for example, thalidomide, it caused birth defects when thalidomide was consumed through organogenesis by the pregnant women.
So, we have a strong history of a very precautionary approach with putting new drugs on the market.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that with new chemicals going in the market.
DEBRA: Wait, wait! I want to ask you a question about drugs. So all these drugs are tested, but what are they tested for in order to be able to be allowed on the market. If anybody watches television at all, you can’t watch television without seeing these advertisements for all these drugs, and then they say in a very nice voice while children are playing in the meadow and the butterflies are flying and music in the background, “And this drug will cause blindness and death and liver problems. And be precautionary.” But these drugs are on the market with all these side effects.
STEVEN GILBERT: And actually, that’s good to know about that. And that’s what a lot of the testing of these compounds try to determine—what are the potential side effects.
And what they try to do with the drugs is have the exposure to the drug low enough so you don’t encounter the side effects.
And that’s part of the trick, knowing at what level a drug becomes toxic and the benefits are outweighed by the hazards of that drug.
And the new drugs, they try to determine what might be the potential hazards of those chemicals through animal testing and also through a lot of experience with human testing. And they’re required by law to read them off. If we had the same thing happen with industrial chemicals we’re exposed to, we’d have a much better idea of chemicals in our products.
DEBRA: Oh, wouldn’t that be great? That would be so great.
STEVEN GILBERT: There’s no law that requires what fragrances are put in dryer towels and things like that. We don’t know a lot of chemicals we’re exposed to. But we’re not required to list them.
So that’s the problem. We don’t have the same precautionary approach putting new chemicals on the market. Most people on this call will be excreting bisphenol-A in their urine. And I’ll bet nobody gave permission to be exposed to bisphenol-A.
DEBRA: Let’s use bisphenol-A as the example for this question because you can read things and books like Our Stolen Future that talk about the health effects of bisphenol-A. And then you can read all kinds of other things that say, “This government agency and this doctor say it doesn’t hurt us.”
I was reading something this morning that just came out last week. There was a new study that showed that not only is there lead in lipstick. This was an article in the New York Times. I don’t know if you saw this.
STEVEN GILBERT: I saw that.
DEBRA: In that article in the New York Times, which I’m going to be putting up on my website this afternoon, in that article, they talked about how there’s all now these eight heavy metals that they found in lipstick. But just in terms of lead in lipstick, the amount that they found was one part per millionth, but the FDA limit for lead in candy is one-tenth of that, 0.1 part per millionth.
And the CDC says there’s no safe level for lead.
So how are we supposed to know, as consumers, what is okay for us to be exposed to?
STEVEN GILBERT: You know, that is really tough. You just pointed out a great example of the contradiction of regulatory fields where lipsticks should be regulated like candy, at least, because you lick the lipstick off your lips. You’re being exposed to them younger and younger. Using lipstick, you’re exposed to lead which is a known hazard. And there is no safe level to lead exposure. So to have this standard is silly.
DEBRA: I think it’s silly too. It’s just more and more, as I study everything about life, I see that there are basic things that need o be understood. And yet, we have people running the world who don’t understand basic things.
And toxicology is one of those basic things. It should be taught in every school, that the things that we’re talking about here, everybody needs to know. And if people who are making regulations don’t know these things, we’re not going to get them on the labels.
There’s so much I could say. There’s probably so much you could say.
STEVEN GILBERT: It is really difficult because the regulatory system sometimes gets disconnected from the health issues and trying to prevent disease. Lipstick is a great example. Mercury in fish is another one. Bisphenol-A is another one.
A recent book just came out on bisphenol-A called Is It Safe? It gives all the history of the BPA, and the struggle to define the safety of chemicals by Sarah Vogel. And that gives a really great background on the controversy around BPA and the vested interest that often promote these products.
Lead, for example, has been promoted for decades in lead-based paint. It was added to gasoline. It took a lot of work to get lead out of gasoline. And it’s even more work to ban lead-based paint.
And if you look at what they did in Europe, they banned lead-based paint in Europe in the 1920s when the League of Nations said they recognized they can be hazardous to the developing nervous system. We didn’t do that in the United States because there’s vested interest in putting lead in paint because they’re making a lot of money from the mining and use of lead.
DEBRA: And I have to interrupt you again or else the commercial is going to interrupt you. I’m here with Dr. Steven Gilbert. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. This is Toxic Free Talk Radio, and we’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And my guest today is Dr. Steven Gilbert. He’s a toxicologist and author of A Small Dose of Toxicology. And he has a very extensive, easy-to-read, informative website called Toxipedia.org. It’s T-O-X-I-P-E-D-I-A dot org.
Dr. Gilbert, I know that you want to talk about managing chemical exposures at the state and national level. So since we’re now in our last segment, let’s talk about that.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you. So I just want to mention that the federal agencies, the FDA and the EPA, work very hard trying to protect public health. And they attach safety factors to different drugs or chemicals that are on the environment. Those safety factors are meant to protect people that are potentially vulnerable.
The problem is that there are vested interests that push back on this really hard. BPA is a great example where the chemical industry is a billion-dollar a year product. And it’s in all kinds of products that we touch—even our cash register receipts. It’s all over the place, even liner cans and things like that.
So, trying to get trials on chemicals is very difficult. And they just limited it in baby bottles. It was not used in baby bottles. But that mostly came about because the States passed laws banning BPA from baby bottles and Nalgene drinking bottles for water.
So, it’s really a combination of trying to get the federal people to be more proactive on protecting human health.
And when we look on internationally, it’s been a big issue. We are trying to replace TSCA, the Toxic Substance Control Act. It was passed in 1976. And that’s not going well. It’s still bottled up in Congress. We’ve been trying for almost a decade. It’s the oldest law, environmental chemical law, that hasn’t been modified since the TSCA of ’76.
And Europe has moved ahead with a program called REACH—Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals—trying to provide more transparency and more data on these chemicals. TSCA doesn’t require the companies to produce a lot of data and health effects of chemicals, unlike the FDA, which it does require drugs to have all these chemical, all these data, to back up the potential side effects or point out potential hazards of a drug. We do not have that for standard chemicals.
In addition, we don’t have a good law to give us transparency, so we know what’s in the products that we’re using—which I think we have a right to know.
DEBRA: We do have a right to know. I just want to back up what you’re saying here and really emphasize it because in order for us to make a decision about our exposure to toxic chemicals. We need to know what’s in the product, what toxic chemicals are in the product, and we need to know what are the health effects of those toxic chemicals.
And unless we have both of those pieces of information, we can’t make a decision.
STEVEN GILBERT: I think that’s really important point. We have a right of information. We have a right to an environment that we can reach or maintain our full potential, particularly for children. We expose children to PCB’s and lead and alcohol and mercury. They rob them of their potential. And it robs adults of their potential. They get older and age.
So we have a right to a healthy and safe environment. And that’s not being honored by our regulatory structure right now.
DEBRA: Well, we have an alienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the first one is life, and toxic chemicals take life away to some degree.
STEVEN GILBERT: They do, they do. They have a lot of long-term effects. Lead, you damage the developing nervous system with lead. It’s a lifetime effect. They lower their IQ, increase the probability of attention deficit disorders. It’s really tragic. And we’ve made this mistake again and again.
You look internationally in Nigeria, 400 kids died from lead exposure because of gold mining. The same thing in the Amazon over mercury exposure. We know better. We know what not to be doing.
DEBRA: Well, we know better. And also, I think that within each one of us, we have consciences. We know that we should be doing the right thing. And it’s the right thing to continue to allow this to happen, or is it the right thing to do what we need to do to clean it up.
This whole thing about toxic chemicals in industry is less than 200 years old. And granted that there are toxic things you’ll find on Dr. Gilbert’s website, the toxic exposures go way back into ancient times. But this whole thing would be constantly bombarded by toxic chemicals, toxic chemicals, toxic chemicals, 24 hours a day, and everything that we do is less than 200 years old, and the results of our industrial culture.
STEVEN GILBERT: I think it’s good to read on that. I’d really recommend it, Doubt is Our Product by David Michaels. He goes into the history of tobacco industry and how the tobacco industry for years said that their product was not toxic. And that industry has manufactured uncertainty around toxicology data.
So, it’s a very important book, Doubt is Our Product by David Michaels. It delves in the history and how industry has responded to regulatory process.
DEBRA: Thank you. So we only have a few minutes left. Let’s talk about the precautionary principle. Tell us what that is. That’s one of my favorite things.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, I love the precautionary principle.
So, the precautionary principle is really an approach to decision-making. It really says that you put the burden of responsibility on the proponents of an activity. The proponents of an activity should show that the chemical is safe, efficacious and not cause hazards.
And it also has a component of education, to hand people a transparent process and educating people about it.
So, an example is the Food and Drug Administration does take a precautionary approach putting drugs on the market. We don’t have that same approach with putting industrial chemicals. So the burden of proof, the burden or responsibility is put on the proponents of an activity.
I spent years doing research on lead and mercury funded by [tax-free] dollars while industry spent all their time arguing that lead was safe and was no problem. Instead of having the burden or responsibility if they’re putting it out in the environment, they should be funding the research to demonstrate safety.
So, the precautionary approach really shifts that around and says “the proponents of an activity have to invest, have to provide the data that show its product is safe.” I think that’s the base of the precautionary principle. And it really says that uncertainty should not be a reason for not taking action.
So, even if there’s some uncertainty about the potential health effects, we take action on the preponderance of data and not demand proof. And that’s what hung up the tobacco industry to make decisions, this industry. How do you prove tobacco products cause cancer?
And for years, we went round and round that circle. But the preponderance of evidence was that tobacco products do indeed cause cancer and nicotine was addictive. It was finally proven. But we have to jump through a lot of hoops to do that. We spent millions of dollars while industry makes a lot of profit from these products and not taking on the responsibility of health and safety to the general population.
DEBRA: So I’ve been working in this field for 30 years not as a toxicologist but as a consumer advocate. And so I’ve been in the position of making decisions and giving advice about helping consumers find products that are less toxic. And so in order to do that, I need to be able to make a decision about what I think is toxic, and what I don’t think is toxic.
And the way I’ve done that is to read as much as I can about what scientists have to say about these chemicals, but also to see what my own body is doing when it comes in contact with these chemicals. And I do listen to anecdotal evidence.
And I was writing about how toxic carpets were long before there were any measurements of toxic chemicals coming off of carpets because I could see people getting sick from them.
And so my viewpoint about this is that if I can observe a negative health effect or if there’s any question about it, I’ll go on the side of precaution. I know the more experience I have, the more I’ve been—now, I’m wanting to really be able to differentiate between what is a chemical that some people might have some individual response to versus something like DDT, for example, or lead, where really, it’s going to be dangerous to anybody.
And even if somebody isn’t visibly showing a poisoning response, that eventually, enough will build up into their body, where it’s going to cause a health effect.
And if I suspect that that was going on by what I’ve read or what I’ve observed, then I’ll say, “We should just stay away from this because I found that there are less toxic ways to do almost anything.”
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, I think that’s a great example. If you take a precautionary approach based on your own observations or your own individual sensitivity, and looking for alternatives—that’s one of the points of the precautionary principle, Pick a lesser hazard.
Using flame retardants is a good example. Cotton and wool are naturally flame retardant. But if you use these synthetic fibers, they have flame retardants in them. And we just don’t need to go there. We don’t need to be doing that.
DEBRA: Yeah, we can stop because there’s an alternative.
STEVEN GILBERT: There are good alternatives. And we also need to know more about our products. That’s really the case. We should not have to worry about lead in jewelry, or lead in candy, which are obviously not the way to do it. We are still bombarded by products that have lead-based paint on them—lead in candy and…
DEBRA: And we do, and it’s not on the label. And I think if we could just get this stuff on the label or even if it’s not on the label, if you could go online and look up a product and see “even though it’s not required by law, this is what’s in it,” the whole economy would shift because people would be looking for products that didn’t have toxic chemicals in them.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, knowing what products have phthalates, and the cosmetics that have phthalates or that carry fragrances, or nail polish, we should know what’s in these products, what we’re being exposed to, and how much we’re being exposed to.
People that work in nail salons get differentially exposed to these products as well as in day-to-day use of these products. There’s just no reason not to know what’s in these products.
DEBRA: And we were coming up on the end of the show now. So thank you so much, Dr. Gilbert, for being on the show.
STEVEN GILBERT: You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it.
DEBRA: And I would love to have you on again. We’ll talk soon.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you very much.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd.