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How much product chemical testing is necessary?

Source: Sustainable Industries

“The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” (Paracelsus 1493 – 1554). 

A Stanford research project has come to the conclusion that organic food has pretty much the same nutritional value as conventionally grown food. But before you go racing out to Safeway, take a look at the study.

This is not original research, it’s an analysis of existing research. Do we know how rigorous those original studies were? Do we know if they are actually comparable? No, we don’t. This kind of meta-research is often used when publish or perish is lurking in the wings. Much quicker to take a look at what’s already out there than to design a rigorous study that would actually provide some real results.

In my mind, the issue is not so much the nutritional value as the presence of pesticides. If organically grown food is even 30% lower in poisonous chemicals, isn’t that a pretty good reason to choose it? I think organic food tends to taste better, too.

Concern about living better through chemistry has been growing. There are some 800,000 commercially available chemicals out there with about 700 being added each year. Less than 4% of these chemicals are tested for safety. Every aspect of our lives has been permeated with chemicals. Dry cleaning, baby bottles, building products, personal care products (I especially worry about all the chemicals in shampoo that I apply to my brain every day). The list is endless because chemicals are everywhere.

In fact, the earth, and everything on it, is made up of chemicals. As Dr. Jef Lloyd says, “All chemicals are toxic but all life is chemistry.”

Without chemicals we would die, but with too much of any one of them we would also die.  Water is a chemical, H2O, the essence of life. There are no studies to support drinking 8 cups of water per day but there is evidence that drinking too much water can kill you.

If you eat a pound of salt, seven pounds of sugar or 30 aspirin, you would probably die. However, our bodies need salt and glucose to function and aspirin is a great pain reliever. The key is the amount ingested or the dose.

So, if we are unable to separate our bodies from their composite chemicals, it’s probably a good idea to educate ourselves on what we should know so we can make reasonable choices about adding to the chemical soup we are made of.

Here’s what you need to pay attention to: LD50. A lethal dose (LD) is the amount of a substance (from peanut butter to arsenic) needed to kill half of a test population of lab animals, normally rats. The lower the number, the more toxic it is since just a little bit can kill the test group. A high number means that you have to ingest a lot to harm you. You can Google the LD50 of just about everything.

When a company claims its products are non-toxic, it’s not true. What they really mean is that it has low toxicity or that their product is less toxic than—what? Often manufacturers neglect to say what their product is being compared to so the claims are just hype.

There are several groups demanding that all new chemicals put on the market should be tested. But for what? It’s impossible to test every chemical for every possible danger. An example is Thalidomide. It was not tested for damaging the limbs of a fetus at a specific developmental stage because no one imagined such a thing.

On the other hand, the EU Commission demands many more tests on products than the U.S., but the result has been that smaller companies manufacturing products that have been used for many years and are “known” to be safe in proper doses and handling, have been forced out of business because they can’t afford the millions of Euros for testing. Now, only the very largest companies can afford the tests and have a monopoly on the market. An example of the EU testing frenzy is that they demand a study to evaluate the impact of metaldehyde on earthworms, even though the chemical is not used where earthworms could ingest it.

This is not to say that testing is not important. It is. All chemicals should be tested to be sure they aren’t carcinogens.

Interestingly, according to Dr. Lloyd, many pesticides targeted at specific pests are actually less toxic than some every day chemicals, like Fluoride, for example. This doesn’t mean we should chow down on pesticides, but it does mean that we should educate ourselves on what is dangerous to us and our environment. All chemicals will kill us, but we are all chemistry.

Dr. Lloyd cautions about overdoing warnings to the point where they are ignored. If a beer carries a warning label and we drink it anyway, does this teach us to ignore other labels? Perhaps, but the key is exposure. If you drink one or two beers once in a while, the danger to you is minimal. But we forget this and are whipped into a state of fear by the media. What is really green? Is organic food better? What does natural mean? Does the product contain traces of pesticide?  Much of the labeling is not very helpful for everyday decisions.

Just because something is natural or organic does not necessarily mean it is better or less toxic. All things in life are relative and chemicals are no exception. You need not be frightened by them if you understand the potential toxicity—the LD50—and your likelihood of exposure by food, skin or air.

Because we can’t get away from chemicals no matter what we do, we need to demand that chemicals are tested at some level before being released into the market place and we need to do our best to reduce our exposure to chemicals known to cause harm.

In the meantime, I’m looking up the LD50 of all those chemicals my shampoo contains.


Priscilla Burgess is CEO, co-founder, and co-inventor of Bellwether Materials, an award-winning, triple-bottom line company that manufactures deep green building insulation made from an agricultural by-product. Before founding Bellwether Materials, she ran her own management consulting business. She has traveled all over the world, asking questions about how people work and from that, has developed several models and many opinions about the best way to grow a flourishing business.