80,000 Chemicals in Everyday Products, But Who's Counting (No one)
I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but I’ve read over and over about the 80,000 chemicals in everyday products (most of which have only been in use since World War II). It’s a stunning figure used as an attention getter when people discuss health issues linked to certain toxic chemicals. Some sources put it higher and some put it lower. Some say they’re all in use and some say they’re just “registered.” I did some research and what I found is that no one really knows.
It turns out that more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals are indeed simply registered for use today with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How many of these are actively used is hotly debated. In fact, the EPA cannot even nail it down—they estimate anywhere from 9,000-15,000. And, roughly 3,000 qualify as "high production volume" (HPV) – meaning more than a million pounds of each one are produced in or imported into the United States every year.
Given that we don’t even know how many of the 80,000 chemicals registered for use are actually being used, it should come as no surprise that no one knows the amount of total chemical production in the U.S. The only guess we have is an estimate based on the roughly 3,000 HPV chemicals - 4.4 to 7.1 trillion pounds of these chemicals are produced/imported annually.
Did that confuse you? It’s because we don’t keep track of all chemicals, only those that are produced or imported at more than a million pounds per year (anything less than a million pounds is apparently insignificant - I guess it just became too much trouble to keep track of everything). And given the almost 3 trillion pound spread between the HPV chemical estimates, we don’t even really keep track of those.
Try to visualize this massive quantity of chemicals. For illustrative purposes, let’s go with the average of the two aforementioned numbers, 5.75 trillion or, 5,750,000,000,000 pounds. These days we throw around numbers like million and billion and trillion without a second thought. But, consider the staggering size of this number. If you had your own little chemical lab and you created one pound of chemicals every second, it would take you over 180,000 years to get to 5.75 trillion. The US produces and imports this much every year (and that number continues to grow).
Now, allow me to shed some light on the true spectacle of ignorance.
No basic toxicity information is publicly available for 43 percent of the HPV chemicals and full information on toxicity is publicly available for only 7 percent.
Allow me to reiterate because it’s so mind boggling: Almost half of the chemicals that we are using in difficult to imagine amounts, almost half, have NO testing data at all on basic toxicity???? And, only SEVEN PERCENT have a full set of BASIC test data???
In addition, the toxicity information we have is a chemical-by-chemical assessment. Well enough on paper, but we are not exposed to chemicals one-by-one. We are exposed to chemicals in a soup-like fashion and every one of us has our own individual recipe. Given the enormous mixtures we are exposed to daily, there is no credible, scientific way to test for health impacts and we keep adding more ingredients (2,000-3,000 a year to be kind of exact).
International authorities agree that six basic tests are necessary for a minimum understanding of a chemical's toxicity. For each chemical, the basic set of tests costs about $205,000. It would cost the chemical industry less than $427 million to fill all of the basic screening set data gaps for the high production volume chemicals. $427 million sounds like a lot of money to you and I, and the chemical industry says it’s completely unfeasible to consider doing all of these tests; it costs too much; it would paralyze them and stunt progress. But, consider this - $427 million only represents 0.2% of the total annual sales of the top 100 U.S. chemical companies. It is a drop in the bucket to them and; thus, utterly outrageous that the tests have not been performed.
So there you have it. Our modern society relies on thousands of chemicals, but we don’t know how many, or how much, or how they interact with each other or how they impact ecosystems or human health and development. It is an unbelievable, unrestrained, global experiment. It’s so huge it’s hard to wrap your head around it. So, maybe don’t try. What you should try to do is reduce your exposure by buying less stuff and looking for more natural choices (like using baking soda and vinegar to clean). You can also help strengthen the regulatory system that’s allowed this experiment to continue virtually unfettered for so many years by supporting the Kid Safe Chemicals Act.