Bioethics Blogs

Precautionary Consumption and Everyday Chemical Toxins

Jennie Haw argues that precautionary consumption is an ineffective strategy to mitigate health harms associated with everyday chemical exposures.

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Brominated flame-retardants and phthalates are two categories of chemicals found in many everyday-use items and living spaces. Brominated flame-retardants are chemical treatments that are used to reduce the risk of fire. They are found in items such as: furnishings, fabrics, carpet, foam, wiring, computers, and televisions. Phthalates are chemicals that are used as solvents and to produce malleable plastics. They are found in items such as: flooring, wall coverings, food packaging, medical devices, medication coatings, shampoos, perfumes, and lotions. Given their wide use, many scholars and commentators describe brominated flame-retardants and phthalates as ‘ubiquitous’ chemicals in industrialized nations.

Public concern regarding health harms related to brominated flame-retardants and phthalate exposure has emerged alongside growing evidence that suggests brominated flame-retardants and phthalates act as endocrine-disruptors and have negative health effects. Studies examining the effects of these chemicals on humans show associations between exposure to brominated flame-retardants and cryptorchidism (undescended testes) in young boys. Researchers have demonstrated a link between high phthalate exposure and decreased sperm motility, decreased ano-genital distance, and smaller scrotum size in boys/men. While studies providing evidence of human health effects are limited compared to animal toxicology studies, many researchers, health advocates, and environmental groups find the results compelling enough to consider human exposure to these chemicals to be associated with significant health concerns.

In spite of these concerns, the Canadian regulatory framework responsible for governing the production and use of chemicals is a permissive one.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.