Landscape of Liabilities June 2012
An accelerating pace of innovation and product cycles increases the potential to introduce problematic chemicals into the environment unwittingly. Because of the high number of ingredients and substances that could pose a potential threat to the health and well-being of humans and the ecosystems they depend on, governments, scientists, and consumer organizations are on the lookout for products and services that could be of concern. Problematically, the speed of product introduction leaves ever-decreasing windows of time during which scientists can investigate new products and gain an understanding of potential reactions and problem areas. Because of the implications for manufacturing, strategic planning, and public-relations management, companies need to create contingency plans and develop an understanding of liabilities they might open themselves to. Also, varying interpretations of substances' positive and negative properties across regions will lead to legislative measures that are potentially difficult to navigate internationally.
An ever-increasing number of chemicals entering the environments in which people live could create public-relations issues.
Air pollution has emerged as an enduring health threat. According to some research, air pollution can cause serious health problems in addition to the well-documented respiratory problems. Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health (Boston, Massachusetts) demonstrated a link between traffic pollution and cognitive decline. And researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University (Corvallis, Oregon) performed experiments on mice that showed that repeated fetal exposure to air pollution resulted in high ovarian- and lung-cancer rates later in life. According to a recent meta-analysis at the Paris Descartes University (Paris, France), even short-term exposure (up to a week) to most major air pollutants is significantly associated with an increased risk of heart attack. A recent UK parliamentary report from the Environmental Audit Committee indicates that air pollution is shortening the lives of 200 000 people in the United Kingdom by an average of two years, suggesting the need for stricter emissions guidelines.
Agriculture is another arena in which companies find the scientific community and public at large concerned about negative consequences, and related regional legislative issues can severely restrict market sizes and trade opportunities. An ongoing debate in the United States concerns the use of ractopamine hydrochloride in feed for pigs and other livestock slated for export. Some people believe that the drug, which has the effect of reducing fat and increasing lean meat, has sickened or killed more than 200 000 pigs in the decade since its approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA; Silver Spring, Maryland); however, the FDA maintains that the available data do not prove that the drug is responsible for those illnesses and deaths. The substance is banned unequivocally in the European Union, China, Taiwan, and several other countries. Meanwhile, groups such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (Minneapolis, Minnesota) are concerned about China's agricultural practices. In China, the pesticides and fertilizers necessary to sustain yields that a population of that size requires are having a negative impact on the environment. Because China's use of pesticides per unit area is 2.5 times the global average, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing, China) are especially concerned about water pollution and soil damage.
Not surprisingly, issues concerning food and beverages—such as the use of nanoparticles in food, vitamins, and cosmetics—are a focal point of scrutiny. New research from Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) showed that polystyrene nanoparticles, which are FDA-approved for use in various food and pharmaceutical products, blocked iron absorption in chickens in the short term and altered the composition of the gut in the long term, suggesting the chickens adapted to the nanoparticles—the changes allowed more iron absorption. But researchers caution that these changes could also open up a pathway for the absorption of harmful compounds. Sugar is also undergoing intense scrutiny. Robert Lustig—a childhood-obesity expert at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine (San Francisco, California)—argues that beyond contributing to obesity, sugar is actually toxic because of the way it is metabolized by the body. Researchers at the University of Adelaide (Adelaide, Australia) have linked the consumption of soft drinks with an increased risk of developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Diet soft drinks may be even worse: Researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (Miami, Florida) and the Columbia University Medical Center (New York, New York) have linked the daily consumption of diet soft drinks to an increased risk of suffering vascular events such as stroke or heart attack. The researchers did not find any link between the consumption of regular soft drinks and a higher risk of vascular events.
In addition, an ever-increasing number of chemicals entering the environments in which people live could create public-relations issues. Such an issue occurred in 2011 when Greenpeace (Amsterdam, Netherlands) revealed that the products of 14 leading clothing brands contain remnants of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), chemicals that some companies use as a detergent during the production process. NPEs, which are banned in the European Union, possess hormone-disrupting capabilities and enter waterways every time consumers wash their clothes. Adidas (Herzogenaurach, Germany), H&M (Stockholm, Sweden), Nike (Beaverton, Oregon), and Puma (Herzogenaurach, Germany) are among the brands that have committed to meeting the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Meanwhile, a team from Nanyang Technological University (Singapore, Singapore) discovered that nanoparticles of zinc oxide—common in sunscreen and cosmetics—enter human cells and damage DNA, which has the potential to lead to cancer.
Children might be most endangered by a wide range of chemicals. Researchers from the Children's Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center (New York, New York) found an association between childhood obesity and exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals commonly found in plastic flooring, wall coverings, and many consumer goods. In a previous study, researchers discovered that exposure to phthalates may impair neurodevelopment in children. Researchers at Baylor University (Waco, Texas) reported that children living in residences adjacent to coal-tar-sealed pavement have high ingestion levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Researchers at the University of California, Davis (Davis, California), found an epigenetic link between exposure to flame retardants such as tetrabromodiphenyl ether (BDE-47) and developmental deficits in children.
New scientific methods are enabling researchers to identify perpetually smaller amounts of trace substances and to establish the potential for problematic links to health issues more readily. Finally, consumer groups, health institutions, and trade organizations are more alert than ever and quick to point out potentially negative effects—albeit perhaps because of different motivations.