Our regulatory system works according to a 'guilty until proven innocent' logic, where new chemicals are available and safe, until the day we realize they aren't.

Last month, the Chemical Abstract Service, an agency that registers every new chemical as it is invented or discovered, assigned a registry number to the 50 millionth chemical. It's a landmark to be sure, but not one we're likely to look back on fondly.

The Chemical Abstract Service began to register chemicals in 1956, and it took 33 years to register the first 10 million new chemicals.

They identified these chemicals primarily from research papers accumulated from worldwide sources. But the last 10 million chemicals were registered in nine months at the rate of 25 per minute!

Even more important, their primary source for identifying these chemicals was not research papers. Instead, 60 percent were from major patent offices worldwide. And the next significant category was chemicals already available in chemical catalogs!

In other words, these chemicals are already out of the box and out there.

Of these 50 million chemicals, there are various estimates of the total number of chemicals in commercial use. The number used by most people in the U.S. is 100,000, based on EPA estimates.

This is probably a low estimate since the European Union has registered 140,000 and at this moment still registering more.

You could be forgiven for thinking these chemicals are tested before making their debuts, but that wouldn't make you any less wrong. Our regulatory system works according to a kind of "guilty until proven innocent" logic, where new chemicals are available and safe, until the day we realize they aren't. (Even if they're remarkably similar to chemicals we already know are dangerous.)

How many of these chemicals have been studied for safety? Not many.

If we restrict our concerns to the 100,000 chemicals in commercial use, it is absolutely frightening that only 642 of these have been studied sufficiently for American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists to set workplace air-quality guidelines for them.

As for long-term testing, only about 900 chemicals have been studied for cancer effects with enough depth to be assessed by the major cancer-research agencies, and about 300 chemicals have been assessed for reproductive and developmental effects and birth defects.

Obviously, we can't assume that majority of the 140,000 or even the 50 million chemicals are nontoxic. There are probably 140,000 surprises out there for us. We are really clueless about this swamp of chemicals through which we slog.

The advertising from most manufacturers leaves consumers with the assumption that all of the ingredients they use in their products have been tested for all kinds of toxic effects, including cancer.

If you want to know how they actually test, look at their lab rats. There's one in your mirror.

New Formula! New and Improved!

Sounds great. But since the "new and improved" products usually function almost the same as the originals, it's likely that one or more of the chemicals in the products have been switched with other chemicals that do the same job.

This is called "chemical substitution," and it's a big part of the reason we "need" to keep inventing new chemicals.

Chemical substitution is possible because chemicals that are closely related by formula and structure also have similar physical properties. So chemical substitution is a way for manufacturers to alter their products to avoid regulation -- often without making the product safer for us to use.

For example, if a chemical is banned, manufacturers can look for another chemical that is almost identical to the banned chemical.

Unfortunately, similar chemicals also often have toxic properties that are similar. And often the replacement chemicals are not as well studied and don't even have to be reported as toxic on labels or material safety-data sheets.

If we learn more about chemical substitution, we can use these same principles to select truly safer products. And to begin, we need to look at how chemicals are found to be so toxic that they are banned and must be replaced with substitutes.

European Union to the Rescue?

The U.S. industry practice of creating chemicals and putting them into commerce without testing has been observed critically by the rest of the world and particularly by the newly forming European Union.

It did not want to operate on the faulty U.S. principle that chemicals are "innocent until proven guilty."

The E.U. chose to frame its approach to this problem in the reverse. In short, its position is that chemicals should be "guilty until proven innocent."

In essence, E.U. regulations to say to industries, "if you can't prove your chemicals are safe, you can't put them on our market."

This is called the "precautionary principle." It assumes that in the absence of test data, you cannot assume a chemical is safe and that precautions should be instituted as if the chemical was toxic, until or unless the manufacturer proves otherwise.

This simple principle forms the basis for the E.U. 's regulatory programs.

First on the E.U.'s agenda is getting the testing done. It understood the absurdity of trying to set safety and environmental policies in the absence of toxicity data. It passed regulations that require physiochemical, toxicological and ecotoxicological testing of "all substances manufactured or imported in quantities of 1,000 tons or more."

Estimates are there are over 30,000 of these large-volume commercial chemicals on which there are almost no data. And there are even more smaller-volume chemicals for which testing will have to wait.

The program under which the E.U. requires this chemical testing is called Registration, Evaluation, Authorization [and Restriction] of Chemical Substances. Now, REACH requires each industry to submit the basic test data or the manufacturer will not be allowed to import or sell either the chemical or products containing the chemical anywhere in the E.U.

The first REACH report of chemical test data is scheduled for 2012. By that time, industry will have invented millions of new chemicals, so it's still a race in which industry is winning.

But the E.U. regulations are at least making it a race rather than the compete rout we see here in the U.S.

About the author

Monona Rossol is a chemist, artist and industrial hygienist. She is the president and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety Inc., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts.