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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Green Intelligence

Air Date: Week of September 25, 2009

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Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health

In the 1950Â’s scientists began to realize that fallout from nuclear testing was moving through the environment and up the food chain. Since that point, it seems that each year another chemical substance is found to be toxic and then pulled off the market only to be replaced by a slew of other chemicals. John Wargo is a professor of environmental policy and risk analysis at Yale University. He talks with host Steve Curwood about his new book, Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, and explains which chemicals threaten us and how the government can better protect us from these risks.


CURWOOD: As emerging agricultural economies in countries like Laos become increasingly reliant on chemicals, they are beginning to face many of the same risks as those in the industrialized world. But figuring out those risks can be confusing and difficult. Living on Earth regularly reports on the suspected dangers of particular compounds, but it’s hard to know how fearful to be about the thousands of untested and poorly understood substances. Maybe we need some “Green Intelligence.”

WARGO: The purpose of the book is really to underscore the absence of understanding about what's worth worrying about.

CURWOOD: That’s John Wargo, Yale professor of environmental policy and risk analysis, who’s written the book “Green Intelligence” for the general public. His aim is to provide a comprehensive guide to both the health dangers as well as the political challenges of addressing those dangers.

WARGO: Most people donÂ’t understand what theyÂ’re exposed to and where it comes from and it arises from a number of different reasons. The failure to produce and disseminate knowledge, the existence of trade secrecy on the part of the private sector, and also classified information on the part of the government. But also the absence of transparency of knowledge that groups like EPA have, but do not make accessible to the general public.

CURWOOD: You say that trade secrecy really jeopardizes our safety. How does that work?

WARGO: I think trade secrecy is very similar to classified information, in that the primary purpose is to protect competitive advantage, but it has the effect of keeping critical information from consumers about product ingredients.

John Wargo

A good example would be a plastic water bottle. TheyÂ’re labeled on the bottom with a recycling code of number seven, but the number seven also includes many other different kinds of plastics, so it gives the consumer no understanding of whether or not the polycarbonate contains a chemical known as bisphenol A. So, itÂ’s difficult then for individuals to think about how they would avoid chemicals in everyday consumer products.

CURWOOD: Now the EPA is supposed to be protecting both the environment and human health, but you assert in your book that itÂ’s failing in its mission.

WARGO: Well, I think it has. I think EPA has done a good job when it has targeted emitters of smokestack or pipe pollution into surface waters, but where they have really fallen down has been in the management of chemicals that are components of consumer products or chemicals that are waste products.

For example, there are now 80,000 chemicals in international commerce. Fewer than ten percent of these have been tested to understand their behavior once released to the environment, or what kinds of effects they might cause on human health, so that perhaps only two or three percent of those 80 to a 100,000 chemicals have been tested fully for the range of toxic effects that are now required by law. WeÂ’re in a position where weÂ’re playing catch up and what the effects of these chemicals are, singly, but also in combinations on human health.

CURWOOD: How much trouble are we in as a society, as a planet, from toxic exposure to chemicals? How serious is this problem?

WARGO: Well, my opinion is that itÂ’s very serious. And IÂ’m not happy about the fact that my children are walking around with this body burden of synthetic chemical substances. And I think that there is growing evidence that some of the health effects that we see, including the rise of respiratory illness, has raised the alarm for me. And the real purpose of the book is to explore the underlying factor that led to the problem of overexposure and under-attention.

Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health

CURWOOD: So, someone listening to us would say, yeah, yeah, yeah, I heard all this. In fact, my car pollutes, the smokestack down the street pollutes, the stuff I buy at the grocery store comes with pesticides. I mean, whatÂ’s a human being to do?

WARGO: Well, I think that there are a number of things that and individual or a family could do. They could adjust their behavior by really changing the way that they think about chemicals in their environment. For example, there are simple things you can do to ensure that you have higher air quality indoors. It’s very important to carefully understand what is being sprayed on – in an indoor environment. Research that I’ve done has demonstrated that often chemical penetrations are higher in indoor environments and exposures are higher when an indoor environment is sprayed and then occupied.

So, be very, very careful and cautious about pesticide use indoors. I recently purchased a flea powder, for example, and there was a plastic bottle, and on the surface of the plastic bottle was a plastic wrapping. And the plastic wrapping claimed that the product was safe for humans and safe for animals. Well, I took the plastic wrapping off and I looked beneath it, and the EPA-required pesticide label stated that it was hazardous to humans, and potentially hazardous to pets, unless the requirements on the label were met very strictly for what the concentration ought to be and how to avoid touching the skin with the product. And this, I think, leads to exposures.

CURWOOD: Now someone listening to us talk might decide that, well, Professor WargoÂ’s just plain anti-chemical. How true is that?

WARGO: Not at all. Chemicals are necessary for life – we’re all made of chemicals. There are chemicals that are essential nutrients, but there are also chemicals that behave in ways that threaten human health. And my argument in the book is basically that we need a better way to be able to distinguish between the chemicals necessary for healthy life, and those that threaten it.

CURWOOD: John Wargo’s book is called “Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health.” Thank you so much for taking this time.

WARGO: No, thank you very much, Steve, for your interest.



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