Innocent until proven toxic

Mar 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

A governor’s panel recently acknowledged some of the state-regulated chemicals in our environment might be harming children more than adults.

But rather than contemplate tighter standards that might affect industrial polluters, the Michigan Environmental Science Board panel chose to err on the side of the chemicals, not the kids.

MESB concluded in a February report that there currently isn’t "a compelling scientific rationale" for applying a safety factor that addresses the exposure of infants and children to environmental contaminants.

The conclusion reached by the majority of the seven-member panel formed by the governor-appointed MESB, went against the recommendations of two pediatricians on the panel. Dr. William Weil, a retired pediatrician in Lansing, who agrees there is a lack of scientific evidence, recommends in the MESB report that Michigan multiply by 10 the adult safety standards for the thousands of chemicals that haven’t been tested in terms of how they affect children.

According to Weil, most chemicals are only tested for their effects on adults. However, he says, children react differently than adults do to chemicals. For instance, he says, some chemicals that don’t noticeably affect adults might have the potential to harm children’s developing organs. Also, he says, children’s tendency to play in soil and grass makes them more likely than adults to be exposed to lawn chemicals and other pollutants that tend to be found on or near the ground.

Weil’s opinion is seconded by one other panelist, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Ruth Etzel, a pediatrician and epidemiologist. The other panelists included a Michigan State University toxicologist, a chemist from Grand Valley State University, and an atmosphere scientist from General Motors Corp.

MESB, which approved the panel’s report, was created by Gov. John Engler in 1992 to give him and other state officials scientific advice. The report is being blasted by Michigan Environmental Council and the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.

In a press release, the groups called the report "a predictable dodge."

"Appointed by Governor Engler," the release continued, "the Michigan Environmental Science Board has more often than not produced results that support his administration’s policies which elevate economic interests over environmental and public health protection. The panel created by MESB to consider the question of children’s health includes a representative of General Motors Corporation who has opposed standards authored by the U.S. EPA to protect children and the elderly from ozone particulate pollution, and a member from the Michigan State University faculty who has been consistently skeptical of health risks associated with environmental pollution."

MESB Executive Director Keith Harrison says panelists are chosen according to their areas of expertise, not the entities they represent. And, he adds, "We ask them to put their personal opinions aside."

Of panelist George T. Wolff, who works for General Motors, Harrison says: "Dr. Wolff is an atmospheric scientist. He’s an individual who is extremely knowledgeable about air quality."

Asked why the panel’s report didn’t recommend tighter regulations for pollutants, Harrison said that MESB isn’t a policy-making body, and that any policy changes would be up to the state’s executive branch or the Department of Environmental Quality.

However, DEQ’s Ken Silfven indicated that, although Weil is entitled to his "personal opinion," DEQ is aligning its policy decision with the decision made by the majority of the MESB panelists: that there is no reason to change anything without scientific evidence.

In October 1998, Engler asked MESB to identify and prioritize MDEQ standards that may need to be re-evaluated because of outdated and/or limited scientific data, then indicate where possible what kind of research should be done to address any deficiencies. In this case, Silfven says, if lack of data is a problem, then the federal government should take the lead in showing how chemical pollutants affect children, because the state can’t afford such research.

As for Weil, he says he doesn’t disagree with the other MESB panelists, he just doesn’t think they went far enough to protect children.

Weil, who is also professor emeritus at MSU, says his suggestion for increased safety standards regarding state-regulated chemicals in our environment is based on a National Academy of Sciences report he worked on seven years ago. That report resulted in congressional action to protect children: The EPA is required to use a 10-fold safety factor for pesticides in food – unless there is data to the contrary.

Weil uses lead as an example of why he believes it is better to have stricter regulations to protect children from potential toxins.

"Lead poisons kids’ brains," Weil says. "Levels that we used to think were safe have now been found to be toxic. In the meantime we’ve produced a lot of brain damage." Unfortunately, says Weil, for "some 30,000 chemicals people are exposed to, there is no data either way." (Which is not to say that all of those chemicals are currently regulated by the state or federal government.)

"We’re saying, until you get the data, you’d better change the rules."

The MESB "Children’s Environmental Standards Report," can be downloaded at