One Step Toward Sustainability

Comments by J.P. Myers, Ph.D.
Director, W. Alton Jones Foundation
to the President’s Council for Sustainable Development
28 June 1995
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Distinguished Council Members:
Thank you for this opportunity. I understand you’ve spent considerable deal of time on fiscal and economic issues. That’s great.

All these economic tools are essential. They are necessary.

But as a scientist, I am concerned about what steps are both necessary and sufficient. Without the economic reforms we won’t make the transition to a sustainable society. In and of themselves, however, they are not sufficient. We need more.

What else is necessary? I will focus on one issue which heretofore has not, I understand, figured prominently in your discussions.

We need to answer a broad question about how to ensure that the widespread deployment of synthetic chemicals throughout modern life does not undermine the long-term sustainability of our society.

Don’t leap to conclusions. I am not about to renounce all the progress that modern chemical synthesis has brought. No scientist concerned for human welfare would.

I have come to believe, however, that some of the basic ground-rules by which new chemicals and their derivative products are developed, tested and brought to market needs examination, if we are truly serious about achieving sustainable development.

I say this because of recent experience. I will give some examples. Pay attention to the time lags. Time lags in a society that is moving as fast forward as ours and working at such a global scale—these time lags create immense vulnerabilities.

Thomas Midgely first synthesized chlorofluorocarbons in 1928, for which he was awarded the highest prize in American chemistry in 1941. Sixty six years later, after 5 decades of widespread use, scientists now have incontrovertible evidence of CFC’s global impact on stratospheric ozone.

Paul Mueller discovered the powerful insecticidal properties of DDT in 1938, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944.

Just last week, 57 years after DDT’s invention and 19 years after its banning in the US, the international science journal Nature published a major new finding, that one of the principal breakdown products of DDT interferes with the workings of male hormones. This finding suggests that DDT along with other androgen blockers (like a widespread fungicide, vinclozilin) may be contributing to increasing anomalies in human reproduction, including an apparent world-wide reduction in sperm count.

Similar time warps can be described for PCBs, for some CFC replacements, and now, it appears, for a host of compounds used commonly in consumer products, including in food containers. The most remarkable of these findings is that polycarbonate plastics, once heated, leach bisphenol-A into solutions. Bisphenol-A evokes an estrogenic response in experimental lines of human breast cancer cells at 3-5 parts per billion. Preliminary measurements about to be published in a scientific journal report concentrations of up to 10-15 parts per million of bisphenol-A in liquids contained in food cans lined with polycarbonate.

My point is not to dwell on the individual compounds. We’ve gone a long-way toward taming CFCs, DDT and PCBs.

My first point is the time lag. Decades from invention through ramp-up and global distribution until we find the flaw.

My second point is the disconnect between product use and the risk created. There was nothing intuitive in 1928 linking CFCs and stratospheric ozone. There was nothing obvious in the 1930s about PCBs and the cranium size of babies born in the Great Lakes. Or common plasticizers and sperm count declines. We know much more about those now. What don’t we know about other compounds?

We have been lucky to date . . . perhaps—the jury is still out on this whole issue of hormone interference. The scale of the human enterprise today is such that miracle products like CFCs, DDT and the like can very quickly reach a global scale of environmental release. New compounds are entering the market at an unprecedented rate that vastly exceeds our paltry abilities to test for the obvious problems, much less transgenerational effects that are the doppleganger of sustainable development.

What should we do?

You have identified several specific steps. Policies that encourage zero-emission zones. Policies that encourage extended product stewardship and a shift toward leasing of products containing complex chemicals rather than simple sales. These are essential.

Let me add several more.

First, we need strong international protocols that remove known bad actors from use. Period.

Second, we need to raise the hurdles that new untested compounds must pass before they are allowed to move wholesale into commerce at global scales.

Third, we need to ensure that the machinery of science remains vital. Efforts today to curtail independent research by cutting the federal science budget are profoundly misguided. We need scientific measures of what is happening to our world. We need scientific explorations of what might happen. These must be unfettered by politics. And the investments in research should be matched in investments in science education, so that the American public becomes immunized against the dissemblings that somehow pass today’s laugh test.

And fourth, we need to expand the public’s right to know what is released into the environment and what is in products they buy, and to find better ways to link scientific understanding with consumer and community choices. It is more than a little ironic, and tragic, that today’s NYT would report on an effort to weaken the Toxic Release Inventory, rather than strengthen and broaden it to include not just waste emissions but purposeful releases.

Better public understanding of risk will create market incentives that ultimately will change the making of things, creating immense business opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses that are prepared. Sustainable deployment of the fruits of modern chemistry can contribute to economic prosperity. Economic growth built upon unsustainable chemistry, on the other hand, is a mirage.

Thank you.

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