The Bad News

There is the potential for bad news residing in the thousands of new chemicals produced and distributed throughout the world that have not yet been tested for chronic toxicity and carcinogenic activity. The process of carcino-genicity testing is slow and expensive, and it is difficult to test all new compounds as thoroughly as they should be. The system used by both industry and governmental groups (such as the National Toxicology Program, a branch of the NIH) is to prioritize chemicals based on their likelihood of possessing carcinogenic or other toxic activity. The chemical structure of untested chemicals can provide clues as to whether they are likely to be dangerous.

Many chemicals are tested using short-term tests, and only those that show some sign of causing mutations or other toxic endpoints in these rapid and cheap tests are then tested in animals. The chances that some large group of people is being exposed to a carcinogenic chemical that we haven't yet tested (and therefore have no idea of its danger) are not zero, but they are lower than they used to be. Still, it would be much better if we could find some way to make certain that all the chemicals in current usage are as safe as they should be.

Another area of concern that has been partially dealt with by international treaties is the growing level of toxic exposures in third-world countries. Sometimes the exposure is caused by the sale of toxic materials (such as agricultural chemicals) by U.S. manufacturers who can no longer sell their products in America. Sometimes the exposure is due to the development of new industries that wealthier parts of the world consider too dangerous. An example is the recycling of computers and other electronic equipment, which is done largely in Asia, and which could expose the workers to toxic levels of various metals and other compounds.

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