In 1989, Massachusetts enacted a remarkable and landmark law known as the Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA). Supported by both environmentalists and industry, and passed unanimously by the state legislature, TURA established toxics use reduction as Massachusetts’ preferred strategy for pollution prevention, and for reducing public, occupational and environmental exposure to hazardous chemicals. The law requires in-state businesses to report on their use of toxic chemicals. It also established programs to support state industries’ toxics use reduction efforts. In the two decades since the bill’s passage, use and release of toxic chemicals by Massachusetts businesses has declined remarkably. Between 1990 and 2010, companies reporting hazardous chemicals use and emissions under TURA have documented a 40% reduction in toxic chemical use, a 71% reduction in toxic byproducts and a 91% reduction in on-site releases of toxic chemicals.
A new report from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell based on this data shows a similarly dramatic decrease in state businesses’ release and use of 74 different known and suspected industrial carcinogens. According to the TURI analysis, which is based on data from businesses reporting chemical use under TURA, environmental releases of potentially carcinogenic chemicals declined 93% between 1991 and 2010 while reported use declined 32% between 1990 and 2010. If the single most-used potentially carcinogenic chemical used during this period, styrene monomer (which accounts for 76% of carcinogenic chemical use) is excluded, the decline in overall use of known and suspected carcinogens is even greater: 53 %.
The report leaves some questions unanswered – for instance, it doesn’t address the health impacts of the documented declines in chemicals use – but this is the first such analysis of TURA data and is essential for any further investigations into cause and effect. “We were interested in declines irrespective of why,” explained report co-author Molly Jacobs, project manager with the Environmental Health Program of U Mass Lowell’s Center for Sustainable Production.
In addition to looking at release and use of 74 potentially carcinogenic chemicals, the report also examines trends in use of chemicals associated with eleven types of cancer: among them breast, bladder, brain and lung cancer, leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Here as in the report as a whole, researchers found that declines in releases exceeded those in use of these chemicals. Between 1990 and 2010, releases in chemicals associated with breast and mammary gland cancer, liver, pancreatic, prostate and testicular cancer all declined by more than 90%, while releases of chemicals associated with lung cancer decreased by 77 %. Use of chemicals associated with specific cancers declined more modestly – 26% for chemicals associated with breast cancer, 28% associated with leukemia and 29% for those associated with lung cancer – but 65% for chemicals associated with prostate cancer and 88% for chemicals associated with testicular cancer.
Big reductions for some chemicals
The reduction in release and use of some individual chemicals is especially striking. Release of ten of the 74 reportable known or suspected carcinogens declined by 90% or more. These chemicals include trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PERC), formaldehyde, methylene chloride, cadmium and chromium and their related compounds. During the same time – 1990 to 2010 – use of TCE declined by 92%, PERC by 85%, and cadmium and cadmium compounds by 69%.
TCE and PERC, noted TURI when releasing the report, are the compounds associated with the Woburn, Mass. childhood leukemia cluster identified in the 1980s and made famous by A Civil Action – the book and movie about the community whose water was contaminated by these chemicals. This contamination was eventually traced to W.R. Grace & Company, which was indicted in 1987 for lying to the US Environmental Protection Agency about its use and disposal of hazardous chemicals. The case against the company brought by the children’s families was settled out of court in 1986. Both would have been fresh in mind when TURA was enacted.
While releases of potential carcinogens have declined dramatically, these chemicals continue to be used in large quantities. In 2010, Massachusetts businesses reporting under TURA used more than 300 million pounds of these chemicals and released more than 500,000 pounds to the environment. Known and suspected carcinogens topping the use list were styrene monomer, sulfuric acid, toluene diisocyanate, lead and lead compounds, along with generated dioxin and dioxin-like byproducts.
That releases have declined so much more than use suggests that reductions may be taking place primarily at the end-of-the-pipe, explained Jacobs and report co-author Rachel Massey, TURI senior associate director and policy program manager. This appears to indicate that Massachusetts industries have gotten far better at controlling where toxic chemicals go at the end of the manufacturing process than they yet are at eliminating these compounds further upstream. This information also suggests that while environmental exposures to potential carcinogens may be declining as releases drop, occupational exposures may be continuing.
Chemical exposures and cancer
Do the dramatic declines in carcinogen releases mean fewer people in Massachusetts are getting sick? The report’s data can’t tell us that, explained Jacobs. According to Massachusetts Department of Public Health data, the state’s cancer rates have increased since the 1980s, by about 14% for men and 19% for women. Incidence of certain types of cancer has increased markedly, while others have declined. Currently, about 100 Massachusetts residents are diagnosed with cancer every day, resulting in more than 38,000 new cancer cases in 2012. However, given cancers’ typically long latency periods, unless a cancer is very specifically associated with a certain chemical exposure – which is relatively rare – associating environmental exposure to individual chemicals with specific cancer diagnoses is very difficult, explained Jacobs.
But what the report can tell us something about, explained Jacobs and Massey, is trends in contribution to cancer risk. “Cancer is a multi-factorial disease,” explained Jacobs. It typically doesn’t have one cause but many possible contributing factors – including environmental chemical exposures. Because these exposures may occur prenatally as well as later in life, they are difficult to document precisely. Yet if we eliminate environmental exposures that constitute cancer risk factors, overall risk declines.
“Think of it as slices of a pie,” said Jacobs, in which each slice present represents a cancer risk factor. While it may never be possible to remove all the slices, reducing and eliminating exposure to carcinogens improves the prospects. Although the dramatic decline in Massachusetts’ environmental releases of a significant number of known carcinogens is no guarantee of health outcomes it is, however, very good news in terms of beginning to eliminate those exposures as potential risk factors.
While there is still a long way to go to reduce environmental cancer risks – especially those in the workplace – and to understanding how Massachusetts’ remarkable achievement in reducing environmental releases of carcinogenic chemicals will affect public health, that this data exists at all is in itself remarkable. A number of states have begun to establish hazardous chemical use reporting programs – mostly focused on children’s products – but Massachusetts’ program remains unique among state pollution prevention programs. No other states require comparable chemical use reporting and no others have comparable programs aimed at reducing toxics use while supporting local business development. And the dramatic reductions in toxics release and use the TURI report documents have all been achieved without a single in-state chemical ban or restriction.
As other states move ahead with industrial chemical-focused pollution prevention policies and federal policy-makers debate reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, they might do well to see what they can learn from Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Mother Jones. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.