LAURIE BROGDON: Good evening. On behalf of Cornell University and the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, I want to take this opportunity to welcome all of you tonight. I apologize, I am recovering from a cold, so bear with me.
I'm here to give a wonderful welcome to our very special guest. But prior to that, I'd like to highlight a couple special people in the room. Some of my colleagues have traveled from Philadelphia all the way from Ithaca. So I would just ask that our staff members please stand and wave and say hello.
Tracy Bosford, Caroline Kaslow, Julie Waters, Warren [INAUDIBLE] and [? Maurie ?] [INAUDIBLE].
And throughout the evening and after this event, please feel free to ask about any one of us any questions that you may have.
My name is Laurie Brogdon. I currently serve as associate director of Regional Programs. I'm in the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development. And this evening, I'm giving a wonderful welcome to our vice president for University Communications, Tommy Bruce.
ANTHONY HAY: We're clapping. [INAUDIBLE]
TOMMY BRUCE: No, no, please, please.
LAURIE BROGDON: Tommy Bruce served the vice president.
TOMMY BRUCE: This is off to a bad start.
LAURIE BROGDON: Overseeing the Division of University Communications, with a staff of 85 organized in four critical areas of news, marketing, public affairs, and campus relations. In addition, Bruce has an informal relationship with each of the communications director of each of Cornell's 13 colleges and schools.
His primary responsibility is on behalf of the university include leading the development of its communications strategy and practices, serving as the universe spokesperson to all media and to the public, directing all aspects of its marketing activity, including the design and maintenance of the website, news services, publication services, and photography, as well overseeing the information and visitor services.
Bruce's 30 years in the nation's capital encompass policy making on Capitol Hill, foreign policy, diplomacy, and international consulting. He brings to Cornell a wide array of experience in creating and managing large-scale advocacy campaigns in the areas of international and domestic business, politics, and public policy. Please welcome Tommy Bruce.
TOMMY BRUCE: Can you hear me right now? Thank you very much. I'm delighted. Thank you for such a generous introduction.
Actually, I'm really here today because this event and this whole day is part of an effort that we're undertaking to dramatically scale up the visibility of Cornell, and most especially our thought leaders across campus, to bring them to Washington and to other parts of the country to engage them with folks so that we can start having an increasing and ongoing conversation, in this case, with Washington.
So today, I'm very happy to be with three of our faculty colleagues. They've had a long day, so treat them nicely. They've been handled by the press, they've met with the press at noon. And then they spent some time on Capitol Hill making presentations to folks in the Senate offices and I believe some folks from the House side.
And so this is part of this effort of ours. And so the subject tonight is really chemical exposure in everyday life. Now those of us who are from another time, we used to think of chemicals as a good thing. Those are things that bring value to our lives.
And here we are today with the panel who want to talk to you about things that are to shine to light, if you will, on the urgency and the need to tackle these issues here in Washington. So we're very fortunate to have Associate Professor Anthony Hay from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Department of Microbiology. He is an ecotoxic--
ANTHONY HAY: Toxicologist.
TOMMY BRUCE: Toxicologist. That's a big word for me. And he specializes on the fate of pollutants, right, in the environment and their effects on humans.
And he is going to be joined by Motoko Mukai, who is from the College of Veterinary Medicine. And her expertise is on persistent pollutants and their effects. And I saw a little bit of her presentation earlier today, and I think she has some things that are slightly alarming. And so we will turn to her for urgency, for a sense of urgency.
And then of course I'm delighted to introduce Professor Margaret Frey, who's from the College of Human Ecology. Her expertise is in fiber science. And I think you'll be very interested by her presentation as well.
So one of the things before I turn the microphone over to our guests, I'll come back after each has made a presentation and help moderate the conversation, but I'm going to very quickly turn and ask you to ask questions and to engage in the conversation. I want to, before we get into that, however, I think it would be really appropriate to draw your attention to the Atkinson Center for Sustainable Futures.
Lauren Chambliss, who was recognized earlier, is here with us, and has been part of this effort today to introduce our colleagues to folks on Capitol Hill. The Center, as you know, plays a really critical role in encouraging collaborations in research among the 300 or so faculty members who are involved in one way or another across all the colleges that are involved in issues affecting sustainability. So this is one of our ways of increasing that collaboration, increasing that kind of research. And so just to shout out for the Center and for all that it does.
So without any further ado, maybe just five minutes-- could you first introduce yourselves. Tell us why you are in this field. I would love to hear your personal experiences that brought you here, and what are you working on right now. So Anthony, would you like to be the first?
ANTHONY HAY: Sure, love to. I hope you don't mind if I do a shout out for the Atkinson Center as well. The Atkinson Center has funded research that many of us are involved with. And I'm currently involved in one of the projects I'm involved with is looking at sand dune movement in Qatar.
And it was really the foresight of the Atkinson Center with a small $6,000 grant that allowed us to get to Qatar and to develop some preliminary data. We were then able to turn that around into now our second $1 million grant from the Qatar National Research Foundation.
So bringing people together with different expertise is one of the things that the Atkinson Center does very well. This is how I first actually got introduced to Margaret's research, by a small award to work with one of her collaborators. And so for me, the Atkinson Center really has been a very catalytic entity in helping to promote research in my own discipline.
So why am I here? Why are you here? I mean, do you ever wonder what is it that got you here?
When I was on sabbatical in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon fiasco happened in the Gulf. And I remember very vividly seeing these images of burning oil rigs. And for me, it was very much a full circle experience because as a sophomore I remember coming home and sitting down at my mom's coffee table and there was a National Geographic. And on the cover was something about the Exxon Valdez. So it was a bird covered in oil.
And as I flipped through the pages, I remember coming across a section about novel strategies for cleaning up environmental pollution. And one of them was bioremediation. And so bioremediation was this idea that they could use natural microorganisms to help clean up pollutants.
And that was really I have to point at that one incident and say that's when it clicked with me, that there was something I could do that was science-related that was environmentally responsible, and that would allow me to perhaps make a contribution. And so even though I haven't actually worked on oil products through the years, really, I've been working on using microorganisms to degrade pollutants, what I call bugs on drugs. So we focus more on things like ibuprofen and triclosan, hand detergents, and things like that, but try and understand how microorganisms are involved in affecting the concentration of these things out in the environment, their fate, what actually happens to them.
In some cases, microorganisms do a great job of detoxifying pollutants and getting rid of them. In other cases, sometimes the microorganisms in our own intestines can actually activate a compound and make it more toxic.
So for me, these are some of the areas we want to focus on. The Qatar Project is a little different in the sense that there we're using microbial activity to try and stabilize dunes. So we're looking at the impact of microbes that are growing on surfaces or biofilms and how they might be harnessed to stabilize dunes so that we reduce airborne particulates and prevent really the swallowing of ground-based infrastructure.
These dunes are incredible. Some of them are over 600 feet high. And it's just this steady, relentless march of dunes. So that's the research that Atkinson Center helped to spur and that we're currently involved in.
So as director of the Institute for Comparative Environmental Toxicology, I'm involved in looking at pollutants and trying to pull together faculty to tackle some of these difficult subjects. And it's really a great opportunity to interact with people across Cornell University. There's faculty in more than seven colleges that are involved in the Institute for Comparative Environmental Toxicology. It's really a pleasure to work with people from Material Science, like Margaret Frey, to people in the vet school, like Motoko, to people in engineering like Michel Louge, who I work with there.
And so I really think that Cornell is just one of the best places in the world to do the type of research that I do. It's a great multi-disciplinary, collaborative environment. And I'm just pleased to be here.
TOMMY BRUCE: Motoko, would you like to go next, please?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Sure. So I am originally from Japan. And the reason why I got interested in toxicology was when I was a veterinary student, I think it was the second year this book called Our Stolen Future came out. It's a very famous book. You probably are familiar with Silent Spring, but this was the next Silent Spring kind of book, and it really affected me.
And so I started this research project, looking at effects in utero and lactational exposure to PCBs. If the female rodent is exposed to PCB, what kind of effect does it have on the offspring. That was the research that I was doing as an undergraduate student or a veterinary student.
And then I got more and more interested in endocrine disruptors. So I decided to go get a PhD and came to the US, and I got my PhD in Illinois Urbana-Champaign. And I've been in this field ever since.
So my main interest in research is looking at toxicological effects in endocrine receptors. And it has been up to now specifically on dioxin and coplanar PCBs. And during my post-doc, I decided to study migratory birds because I thought being a veterinarian, I thought migratory birds will be a very interesting model to look at toxicological effects of endocrine disruptors, and not very many people were working in that area.
So I work for a researcher named John Wingfield. He's an assistant director for the NSF right now for Biological Sciences. But he was at UC Davis at the time, so we did some microarray studies to look at gene expression at the hypothalamus level in the brain to see what kind of regulations are going in there at the brain level when these birds are exposed to longer day lengths.
So we found some genes that affects the thyroid hormone system. So my hypothesis is that some of these endocrine disruptors that affects the thyroid could affect that mechanism of birds responding to light and therefore prepare for migration. And these birds, if you bring them into captivity and expose them to lengthening of light, they start eating drastically and they get hypophrasia, they get fat, and they're ready for migration.
And they start to move around, become very active during the night time. Whereas, the specific birds that I was looking at is not diurnal. So they're not supposed to be moving around at night. But as soon as they're ready for migration, they fly at night, so they start moving. So studying that effect. So I would like to look at the endocrine disrupting effects in that process in the future.
But at the moment, I have a project which is funded by Atkinson Center. And I'm working with the zebrafish embryo model to look at effects of endocrine disruptors and complex mixture. And this proposal was on hydrofracking because when I arrived at Cornell in 2011 in January I went to a seminar by Susan Riha, who's a director of Water Research Institute. And she gave a presentation about hydrofracking. I said, whoa, this is really a concern for people around Ithaca and Upstate New York, and what can I do as a toxicologist.
And I went up to her right after her talk and said, have you been looking at any components of this water, if there's a contamination. And she said not yet, but we would like to look. So that's how the collaboration started. And we were collaborating with Todd Walter at the Water and Soil Testing Lab, and we're getting some baseline data. And we are not sure if hydrofracking will ever come to New York State, but we're getting ready to if there ever will so that we have some baseline data for that.
And another Atkinson Center-supported project is looking at pesticide load level in local Mason bees. This is a work in collaboration with Bryan Danforth in the Department of Entomology. And we think that they're in traction of susceptibility to pathogen and residue levels of pesticides in these Mason bees. So I'm really thankful for Atkinson Center supporting this project.
TOMMY BRUCE: Sounds like you're very busy.
ANTHONY HAY: Can you save me some gut content? Maybe we can do the microbiology?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Oh, that would be very interesting, yes.
ANTHONY HAY: Just excuse us, we've got a grant to write.
TOMMY BRUCE: This is what it's all about. This is very good. Margaret?
MARGARET FREY: Hi, I'm Margaret Frey. I am from the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology. I can't help but notice that everyone in the audience has chosen to wear clothing made of fibers today. So I know that you are all my people and you all know about the kinds of materials that I like to work with.
Although many people think of textiles as an old-fashioned, low-tech kind of material, and it is something that people have been using for 3,000 or more years but have never been able to really replace the flexibility, the strength, the breathability, the ability to absorb and move fluids. In fibers is unique over other kinds of materials, metals, plastics, ceramics, things like this.
So in my research, I take these properties of fibers really to an extreme, and I make fibers that are hundreds of times finer than a human hair. And I design these to capture and move and sort out things like E. coli, salmonella, viruses, and different kinds of chemicals.
And while these guys are finding out that these chemicals are prevalent in our environment now, what I'm really working on is building rapid, easy ways to detect these things. So the goal is maybe something that's like a home pregnancy test, that really any person with no education can go and get and use and test to find out if they're subject to a disease, or if toxins are present in their water or in their food or in their environment. So that's what we're working on in Fiber Science and Apparel Design.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well, thank you. So just to share a little bit your experience today, all three of you, you're very busy, you have a lot of things to do, but you came to Washington. And what was the message that brought the three of you together? And what did you tell people on Capitol Hill, for example, that they should be paying attention to? Anthony, do you want to take--
ANTHONY HAY: Sure.
TOMMY BRUCE: And I invite everybody to interrupt each other and join the conversation.
ANTHONY HAY: Great. Really, it's an opportunity to talk to folks on Capitol Hill and also to the journalists and to you fine folks about the opportunity that we have, a rather unique opportunity, in this very polarized political climate to support a bipartisan effort to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act. So it's often abbreviated as TSCA, not like the opera.
TOMMY BRUCE: It sounds like an opera.
ANTHONY HAY: Is it Paganini? I don't know my operas very well. But the song that we're singing is one that encourages this effort, especially in a way to empower the EPA to actually do the job that the current legislation has asked it to do, but has made it impossible for it to accomplish.
So the legislation that was written in 1976 when the world was a slightly different place. The Cuyahoga River was burning. Now the biggest problem with the Cuyahoga is that carp are trying to get into Lake Michigan. Is that where they're going?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Erie.
ANTHONY HAY: Lake Erie, sorry. My geography is off.
So the idea that we're no longer necessarily confronted with these acute doses of toxins that are killing people or creating obvious birth defects or causing high rates of cancer, the effects that we're seeing and the toxicologists are concerned with are much more subtle. So Motoko talked about endocrine disruption, of behavioral changes. Anyone who was watching CNN this afternoon, there is a study released from a group by Harvard that looked at air pollution and metals on the rates of autism, so subtle effects on learning disabilities.
And these are the things that the current legislation really doesn't grapple with very well and doesn't provide EPA the resources, both financial resources, but also the regulatory law-creating resources or power to create guidance and regulatory limits on pollutants that are protective of human and environmental health. So that's the message that I was here to share with them, that really it's about creating legislation that's good for business, that's good for the environment, and that provides a level of certainty for both business and the public about how we can improve our own health.
TOMMY BRUCE: Motoko, remember at lunch time you were talking about the urgency of the situation, and you had some statistics, a couple data points that were interesting. One was something like 28,000 chemicals that we use, and 700 are introduced every new year. I may have gotten that wrong, but I remember the numbers, the order of magnitude was really impressive. So I'd love you to talk a little bit about that.
And another aspect of it was this idea of additive versus synergistic, and how actually you're also interested in how things interact, how these chemicals and these compounds are interacting among themselves and causing further damage. Can you give us a little sense of why now there should be more urgency?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Well, I think it's not specifically now, but we are beginning to understand that these toxic compounds, or any compounds, can have these additive and synergistic effect. So I started out by talking about effects of endocrine disruptor and how very low levels of a compound can have subtle effect.
But there's also a problem of we live in a world where we're immersed in cocktails of chemicals. And right now, we have more than 84,000 chemicals registered, and an average of 700 more is added every year. But very small fraction of those compounds are really tested for safety or toxicological effects. And we don't know how many of those have endocrine disrupting effects.
So I wanted to talk about it today to let the policy makers know that it's very important to think about. Even if you regulate one compound or set a safety limit for one compound, if you have 10 different compounds with similar effects, and even if all of them are below the safety levels, 10 added together could lead to toxicological effects. So we need to be thinking about those kinds of thing.
And it's very difficult to regulate, put a policy in place. But we need to start thinking about it. And the scientists from the EPA are actually the ones who started all of this, that complex mixture. So the science is there. And it's been a decade, and more data is coming up, but we need to start.
TOMMY BRUCE: So you're talking about toxic compounds or the effects of, for example, plastic bottles. I mean, there's all this controversy as to whether you should be drinking out of plastic bottles, right? Is that what you're talking about? I'm trying to bring this down to our everyday lives. Can you connect to them?
MOTOKO MUKAI: You can get exposed to endocrine disruptor from plastic bottles.
TOMMY BRUCE: For instance.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Plastic bottles, but also from perfume. There's phthalates contained in expensive perfumes. Interesting, the more expensive the perfume is the more phthalate there is. And there's other compounds in the food packaging material. Benzylphenol has been suggested to have some endocrine disrupting effects. BPA is a--
ANTHONY HAY: Nonylphenol.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Polyphenols?
ANTHONY HAY: Nonylphenols.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Nonylphenols are detergents and found ubiquitously in the environment. And also BPA, you probably have heard about that compound. But because of this public outcry, the industry is starting to find a replacement for BPA. And there's a compound called BPS, which is as estrogenic as BPA. And there some other alternatives.
So TSCA should be able to regulate these compounds before it comes to the market. And I think industry should be held a little more responsible for which compound to use.
TOMMY BRUCE: Yeah, go ahead.
ANTHONY HAY: Just currently, the way TSCA is written is that the onus is on the EPA to identify a problem. So under significant new use rules, when a company wants to use a new chemical or use it in a different way, they send a letter to the EPA. And the EPA has got 90 days to require them to do something, if they have significant justification.
With 700 new chemicals each year, that's two or three day. The EPA just doesn't have the resources. And in Europe and Canada, that's not the way it's done. There, the onus is on the companies to provide supporting data that shows that the chemicals they will use are safe.
And this just makes a lot of sense, especially when we are dealing with the ACS, the American Chemical Society, for example. Obviously, small producers aren't going to be able to meet the toxicological requirements. But in aggregate, our chemical society, our chemical manufacturers have the resources to do this, to check to see how safe the products are that they are using. And really, it provides them with an environment of certainty.
I've been told businesses don't like uncertainty and they don't like liability. And one of the best ways to create an environment for them where there is certainty and reduced liability is for them to know that they're using products that we know are safe. And so I think putting the onus on the companies to help participate in this process, I think, is going to be a win-win in the long-run.
TOMMY BRUCE: Margaret, in the fiber science area, you must be encountering a lot of examples of the way we live and how the chemical compounds are affecting our lives, so through clothes and so forth and so on. Can you share with us some of your findings? How do you see the problem?
MARGARET FREY: So really, that angle isn't what I was here to talk about today. So I'll diverge a little bit.
TOMMY BRUCE: Go ahead.
MARGARET FREY: From your question. While Anthony and Motoko have raised the alarm about all these chemicals being there and that companies need to be more responsible for identifying them, what I'd like to maybe pile on with is the fact that since the TSCA was first initiated in 1976, the ability to detect these compounds and the ability to find out how they're influencing human bodies has also advanced hugely.
For one thing, we've got huge amounts of computing power in all our pockets these days that really we didn't have in 1976. And researchers are starting to harness this as detectors for viruses and microbes and bacteria and other kinds of bad actors.
Additionally, what my research works on is making any of these detectors work better by concentrating and presenting these things, these bacteria, these viruses, coming out of an impure fluid. So whether you're starting with ground water, whether you're starting with sewer treatment plants, effluence, whether you're starting with chicken noodle soup or blood, you've got a whole lot of things in there. And we need to find one or two of the toxic compound or the evidence of endocrine disruption there. And so what our research is able to do is gather that up, separate it, concentrate it, and then present it for detection.
So in sum, what we're perhaps suggesting that industry needs to do is not unreasonable, given the state of detection and what we're able to achieve on that front today. And we should remember that a lot of industries do already a huge amount of research into their products, a huge amount of quality control. So every time you maybe buy a bottle of shampoo that says increased shine, increased luster, increased body, they've actually gone through a lot of testing to prove that they've made a perceptible difference in that. So asking them to maybe do a little more testing and prove that they're not including something that's toxic doesn't seem unreasonable.
Meanwhile, in the textile industry, there's been, I guess, a long history of looking at what's been added to textiles and how they might be influencing humans. One of the big issues right now is adding fluorocarbons. If anyone has stain-repellent clothing, it's almost impossible right now to buy a pair of men's pants that aren't stain-repellent. And that is basically done by grafting Teflon onto the cotton of the pants.
So when you spill something on yourself, instead of soaking it and staining, it rolls and falls off, which is wonderful. It's delightful.
ANTHONY HAY: It's a risk I'm willing to bear with. I'll take the chemical exposure for clean pants.
MARGARET FREY: But on the other hand, fluorochemicals are another one that don't break down, they don't go away, they tend to bioaccumulate, and can build up and be harmful to humans. So research goes on.
And even in places like Cotton Incorporated, if you ever see the commercials that are on the look, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives-- you've seen those, right? They have people singing and dancing in their closet. See, I told you we were going to get to dancing. Their research institute down in North Carolina actually was working on how to reduce the amount of fluorochemical, the amount of Teflon that's required to do that stain repellent and see if they can achieve that in less toxic kinds of ways.
ANTHONY HAY: Stop eating at my microphone.
MARGARET FREY: So, how's that?
TOMMY BRUCE: No, I mean.
ANTHONY HAY: One of the points I wanted to make was that oftentimes I've heard it said that the definition of a Cornell professor is someone that believes otherwise-- I believe otherwise, I believe you're wrong. And sometimes I think in academia we can just be seen to be forecasting gloom and doom. But I think all of us, while we realize that there are significant problems out there, we're looking for solutions from a practical standpoint.
And I really was struck by Margaret's comments. It's just that we're not just telling people that these chemicals are out there, but we're providing them with ways of either cleaning them up or making it easier for them to detect. And I think that's really one of the hallmarks of Cornell's approach is that we are the life sciences or the ag school to the world. And I think that's what the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences thinks of itself is that way.
But that we're interested in not just identifying problems, but solving them. And that's one of, I think, the reasons it's so pleasurable to work with folks like this, is that we come at it from many different angles. And it's really a great opportunity to look for the opportunities to interact with one another.
TOMMY BRUCE: So just to share a little bit of your day with our audience. How was your message received? Did you get anything out of the conversations that was unexpected or reassuring or gave you pause? I'm not giving you any [INAUDIBLE].
ANTHONY HAY: Yes, I was struck with how young the interns were. They all look like sophomores. But I was enthused at their drive. They want to know, what can we do. And so that was really refreshing, and that there are things that they can do.
It's a little unnerving to know that really the catalyst driving the policy change are these 21-year-old kids that are there for the summer, but they're able to cross boundaries. I was told that no one from the House would show up because we were in the Senate side of the building, yet we had kids that we're working with representatives from the House.
And it was great to see, OK, and you could see the wheels turning-- what can we do. And that was actually even one of the questions-- what can we do. And for me, that was one of the most beneficial parts of the interaction.
Yes, they were there to learn, they wanted to know exactly what nuances they could perhaps spin on. I think I heard the term messaging several times, but it was presented with the notion that they're trying to solve problems. And so for me, that was great. I really appreciated that.
TOMMY BRUCE: Motoko, did you hear anything you'd like to share?
MOTOKO MUKAI: I agree, I had a very good impression. They were genuinely interested, and they wanted to know whether this TSCA reform is going to do the job that they want. So I was very pleased to see young people think that way and interested in this subject and concerned about toxic compounds as well.
MARGARET FREY: I think I was also very encouraged that they asked some tough questions about, if we're all presenting this as a no-brainer, why is there disagreement. And why is there disagreement on both edges, maybe from chemical industry and maybe from environmentalists, both?
I think Anthony responded that that meant we're getting there, that we're getting to a good point with this. If the extreme edges are both not liking it, then maybe we're getting to the sweet point.
ANTHONY HAY: If everybody is equally unhappy.
MARGARET FREY: Everyone is equally unhappy.
ANTHONY HAY: Then we're doing our job.
MARGARET FREY: Yeah.
TOMMY BRUCE: So at this point, I'd like to invite you to ask your questions. Who would like to go first, please?
AUDIENCE: I have a question about the jeans I'm wearing.
MARGARET FREY: Sure.
ANTHONY HAY: They look great.
AUDIENCE: Actually, that was more of a joke, but is that a basic thing, or is there stained stuff in everything, like with Teflon?
MARGARET FREY: Some denim jeans do have stain repellents on them. There's a lot of things you can talk about with denim jeans, from the cotton and how the cotton is grown, to the dying processes and whether that's done.
If we did it in this country, we couldn't just release the dyes into the rivers. But in other countries, that's not necessarily true. And dye pollution is very easy to identify because all of a sudden your river is a different color-- to even the labor standards that are required to make the clothing as cheap as we want to buy it for.
So you can tell, if you want to test your jeans and see if they're stain repellent, go get a glass of red wine and dunk on there. And if it beads up and rolls off, you'll know you've got some good stain repellent. If not-- Tide.
ANTHONY HAY: Unlike most experiments where we encourage you not to try these things at home, we suggest you try this at home, not here.
AUDIENCE: I'm a professional.
ANTHONY HAY: OK.
TOMMY BRUCE: But I think the point of the question is just how ubiquitous this problem is. I mean, we're endlessly confronted by those 84,000 compounds, right?
ANTHONY HAY: Maybe I can speak to that. I mean, we work on degrading antimicrobial compounds, triclosan. And it's almost impossible to find a hand soap that doesn't contain an antimicrobial compound, triclosan being one of the worst offenders. It's accumulating in fish, it impacts our own immune systems, it's in toothpaste at 3,000 parts per million.
And yet, it really has no statistically no beneficial effect. I remember reading some of the early studies and the jargon. You could tell that the paper had been through the company legal department because instead of saying there was no effect, they said not significantly different than control, which meant legalese for no effect.
So here we're putting compounds into our lives that aren't really having the effect that they're intended for, and yet they're used as a marketing ploy. And when we wrote on this subject, we talked about this idea, this mentality of the microbiophobiic public, that sometimes the products we consume are marketed to our fears.
And so being a good consumer, being a wise consumer to say, OK, what am I buying. Am I buying a product that has something that I really need, or maybe I don't? Where are these products manufactured?
[INAUDIBLE] is where many blue jeans are manufactured in Northern Mexico. They have a problem there with blue earth. The water is so blue because they don't have the environmental standards that, when they actually are watering the land, that the land turns blue. It's quite striking. And so everyday products we do consume can have an effect, not just on us, but also affect environments half a world away or just across the border.
AUDIENCE: Yes, thank you for coming. Yes, thank you for coming. I live in a town where--
SPEAKER 1: Still [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 2: Can't hear him.
AUDIENCE: I live in a town where people.
SPEAKER 2: A little better.
TOMMY BRUCE: Just speak up louder. Don't worry about the microphone.
AUDIENCE: I'll just speak loud. Thank you.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: I live in a town where a group of people have introduced a municipal ordinance to ban pesticides. They've created a list of pesticides, including glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, and a number of other pesticides that they refer to as cosmetic lawn pesticides. And they've introduced this legislation in our municipal government, and it's become quite divisive, as you might expect.
Our mayor has estimated that he'd have to hire a full-time employee just to implement this legislation. On the other hand, I've been asked a question as to how do you sample for pesticides. And is there a litmus paper where you can swipe the lawn and figure out where the pesticides are? Well, no.
So what is your take on the utility of an approach that does this at the local level, as opposed to does this at the state level or the national level in terms of management of pesticides?
MARGARET FREY: I guess I had one project where we worked on controlled release of pesticides to try and make sure that every amount of pesticide that's used actually goes to the use, rather than being blown away or running off the land. And I will say I'm a big fan of Roundup. it's much easier than weed whacking.
AUDIENCE: There you go.
MARGARET FREY: So I think there's a valid concern, especially about overuse or extreme use of pesticides for lawns and also for crops. It does seem really tough, I guess, to me. Well, I guess the estimates that I've heard from Cornell Entomology is that about 30% of what's applied actually does the job. And the rest of it gets blown away in the air, gets into the water system, and is in places where it's doing negative impact instead of a positive impact.
So I think the concern is real and the concern is valid. Whether this approach would make any material difference or actually even improve the health and the water of that town, I'm skeptical.
TOMMY BRUCE: Go ahead.
ANTHONY HAY: So I'm a big fan of the idea of home rule as far as being able to set ordinances that are specific to one location. Whether or not the ordinance that passed or is being considered in your location is going to do what it's intended to do, I don't know.
But really, one example where this has helped to drive greater understanding of chemicals in the environment is really California's approach to regulate. California has said, EPA is either not enforcing TSCA or is not using it to its full extent, and is not regulating chemicals that are known to be harmful. So California has not waited around for the EPA to come up with legislation.
In the 37 years since TSCA has been enacted, only five chemicals have been banned. And of those, one was rescinded by a court order. So TSCA has laid the groundwork for helping us understand how we can manage chemicals, but its implementation-- really, the EPA has been handcuffed.
So I think one of the important things to do is to remain involved in your community so that your voice is heard. And so that legislation that does come about represents the broad array of opinions because we see this in hydrofracking in Upstate New York. Hydrofracking, there's a moratorium at the state level, but municipalities have come together and said, under New York's home-rule legislation, we have decided that we don't want it in our neighborhood.
And so that creates the opportunity for people to be involved and to feel ownership. I think one of the problems is that legislation is a very slow-moving beast, and it's not responsive to the needs of individual communities. So while I can understand your frustration, perhaps, that this might be overly restrictive, in general, I think it's great. And what it means is if we're seeing legislation in our communities that isn't representative of our views, it's a great opportunity for us to get involved and make sure our voices are heard.
AUDIENCE: Question about your position on TSCA. Unfortunately, been practising TSCA law since 1976. Are you supporting the Lautenberg Bill, [INAUDIBLE] position?
ANTHONY HAY: As a Cornell employee, I'm not supporting anything. Personally, I would refer you. For anybody that is interested in reading cogent arguments about what needs to change in TSCA, GAO has a great article, testimony that they presented to Congress in 2009 that I think identifies the problems. So I would personally be in favor of any bill that addresses those issues.
So issues specifically are giving EPA the greater authority to mandate testing, to require information. So currently, I've talked to people in the chemical industry, and they tell me that they don't want to know anything about the chemical they're using because anything they know they have to share with the EPA. But they're not required to generate any information if they don't already have it.
AUDIENCE: You sort of had one thing wrong in your discussion.
ANTHONY HAY: OK, please.
AUDIENCE: Because with respect to new chemicals, EPA does have the upper hand. There is no mandatory data requirement. But they can basically require whatever they want. And in fact, Lautenberg Bill does virtually nothing to change the new chemicals of a system because nobody thinks that's broken.
So the other things you identify are clearly broken and need to be fixed. But the new chemical, the clearest process, nobody has said there's any problem, And there's really no point to generating hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars of toxicology data as a requirement for a chemical that's going to be used in linen and wines, it's critical to making your iphone, its residues are incinerated because that's the rule. They've already [INAUDIBLE] volume exemption.
And why do you need $1 million of toxicology, for example, that virtually nobody is exposed to? And that's what works in TSCA now. That has not changed. But don't confuse that for what does need to be changed.
ANTHONY HAY: Sure, no, but I would disagree. There is some disagreement with the EPA as to whether or not that works because the onus is on them to require the information and to identify a potential risk. And so they're understaffed and there's limitations on their ability to come up with-- I mean, the bar is fairly high for how they justify requiring additional information.
AUDIENCE: Not for new chemicals. [? 16 ?] chemicals on 100% [INAUDIBLE], but not new chemicals.
ANTHONY HAY: OK, I guess what we'll disagree.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] PMN system.
ANTHONY HAY: OK.
TOMMY BRUCE: I'm coming to you right away, but there's a gentleman right here that's been waiting.
AUDIENCE: A comment on this TSCA business-- I work in the office of EPA that implements TSCA, it administers TSCA for 27 years. In fact, the first job I had when I got to EPA from Monsanto was to create a risk assessment about new chemicals. At that point, the Chemical Manufacturers Association had petitioned and the EPA saying, for a small volume of chemicals, which I think was 10,000 kilograms.
ANTHONY HAY: It's still that.
AUDIENCE: Stuck within intermediates and polymers, but they didn't have to submit anything. Just automatically if they submit it, information that the new chemical was going to be in one of those three classes, no problem. So my job was do a risk assessment on an unknown chemical with unknown toxicity for unknown uses to support some kind of restriction on what they can get away.
And what we created was enough so that the industry finally executed an MOU saying, well, we will not submit for exemption anything that has any structural similarity to a carcinogen, a reproductive toxicant, and a couple of other categories.
But on the other side of the coin here, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act gives the agency authority to require specific testing before any chemical can be used. And so that is I think basically the model that you're basically talking about. For chemicals that are going to have wide exposure, to give the agency the authority to require a battery of tests similar to what FIFRA now stipulates. So anyway, working at the EPA is very interesting.
ANTHONY HAY: Thanks for your service at EPA. Just returning briefly, so I agree that exemptions for chemicals that we never see, if there's no exposure, there's no risk. And one of the arguments the GAO makes that I think is really cogent is that we should be regulating chemicals that are coming to market and really not focusing so much on experimental chemicals, these low-volume chemicals that aren't really-- where we're not exposing people.
And I think one of our missions here is to educate the general public. Where there is no exposure, there is no risk. And I think we'd be remiss if we didn't share that information with you.
Not everything is toxic, and there's nothing that's not. What really matters is what are we actually getting exposed to. And we can manage risk in a number of different ways. We can prevent production of chemicals, but that's really not the most useful approach.
The best way is just to limit exposure, and there are a number of ways that we can do that. I definitely agree with you on that subject.
TOMMY BRUCE: Would you like to-- yes, please, go ahead.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you have any suggestions for ways for people to limit their exposure, like if there are things that are put into our clothing that we don't even know. Not every clothing says that it's made with Teflon, either words or things that you can look for in the store to avoid buying chemicals that have unknown effects on your health?
MARGARET FREY: It's hard to give a short answer to that.
ANTHONY HAY: We've done all these things. The test isn't for another 20 minutes.
MARGARET FREY: Yes, so I think having some maybe awareness of how things are made, as it's become more important to know maybe where your food is coming from, there's some argument that it's becoming more important to know where your clothing is coming from. Almost regretting bringing up the stain repellent as an example now. While they're bound to your clothes, they're not really hazardous to you. When they become free and get into the water system, then they do become hazardous.
So some years ago, workers at DuPont who were making the chemical actually filed a suit against DuPont because they were having effects of this kind of material. So what do I have to say about this?
ANTHONY HAY: I would say, you have an iPhone, google it. That's my answer to most questions that I get. But look, if there's a name brand or if there is a Microban, for example, or if it says something that implies that it's got some sort of protective capability, then I think that's when I start asking questions. I wonder, OK, what is this stuff.
One of the studies we did a few years ago, we got contacted by an insider who worked for Whirlpool Hot Tubs. And he was concerned that they were putting triclosan, which is this antimicrobial compound, into their hot tub plastics. And he wanted to know was it going to leak. He really didn't like the idea of it.
And so we looked at those plastics. And one of the things-- we went shopping, we just went to the store and we started buying things. We found triclosan in dish towels, we found it in hand soaps, we found it in cotton swabs. And when we looked, and some of these materials it leached from very readily. Others, it didn't.
And so what I tell my mom is, if there's something in there that you don't recognize, do a little bit of research. Just because something has a long chemical name doesn't mean it's a problem. But with the freedom of information availability these days, I think we can very quickly get an idea of what is actually in the products that we're going to buy. And then you can make an informed decision from there.
But I definitely don't want to generate chemical phobia, because chemicals are important. Lots of them do important things for us and our fabrics.
TOMMY BRUCE: And I think the point that you're also trying to drive home is you want to know more, you want to do more research on these things. And there are interactions among themselves so that there is a more educated approach to all this, right?
ANTHONY HAY: Sure.
TOMMY BRUCE: Fine. So some questions over here? Yes, go ahead.
AUDIENCE: My name's Bill Caruso, I'm a former student of Dr. Frey's. I'm an Afghanistan veteran. And one of the most significant chemical exposure issues affecting my generation of veterans is the use of incinerators and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to consume hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of polyethylene terephthalate water bottles, amongst other things that then create particulate matter and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polybrominated and polychlorinated dioxins that at least one and half million of our veterans, in addition to hundreds of thousands of our allies' veterans, and millions of other local people in those areas, are then exposed to.
I've got a couple questions. First being, this is a controversial issue. What do you see as being the true risk associated with these environments? And is there a precedent on which we can deal with this issue and prevent it from happening again?
TOMMY BRUCE: Motoko, why don't you take a stab at it?
MOTOKO MUKAI: So some of those compounds are generally defined as dioxins. And it's really hard to get rid of it from the environment once you have it. And it could regenerate it by simple incineration below a certain temperature. If you have chlorine compounds and some benzene, then you get dioxin-like compounds. So it's really a tough one to solve.
Do you have any [INAUDIBLE].
ANTHONY HAY: One of the things that I know that's going on at Cornell is developing better combustion technology, small, easily deployed-- both at Cornell and at SUNY-- easily deployed basically ovens that will allow us to burn these things. Because Motoko is right. There are engineering controls that can take care of this. We no longer generate a lot of dioxins from commercial smokestacks because we realize what the fluke temperature conditions need to be like, what the moisture content, and what the chlorine content need to be like.
As late as the 1990s, 40% of the dioxins that were generated in the United States were generated from backyard burning. And whether it's plastics or whether it's just regular trash, coming up with engineering controls, I think, is great.
And one of the other advantages to that is that you're really using resources to generate electricity. So it's a win-win in many situations. And so I know folks at Cornell are addressing that, not necessarily from the toxicology-first aspect, but certainly there are additional benefits from a toxicological approach that come from using green technology.
And this is again a plug for the Atkinson Center where you're bringing together people that are working in mechanical engineering to develop new stoves or new ovens with people from toxicology to look at the effects of the byproducts. It's a great opportunity to be able to address some of these really important emerging concerns.
And thanks for your service, by the way.
MARGARET FREY: Maybe I'll jump on, that I'm sure you remember from your class that those bottles can also be recycled. So they don't necessarily need to be fully incinerated. But the PET from the bottles can be made directly into polyester fibers that are like the polyester fibers in our clothing.
And that's really a matter of creating a value stream for that. Since the starting material is oil, the more expensive oil becomes to make polyester-- the raw material is oil, petroleum. The more expensive that becomes, the more economically viable it becomes to gather up those bottles and recycle those as a raw material instead.
But of course that requires infrastructure. I guess all of these solutions require that, which may also be completely lacking in these conditions. So it's definitely a tough problem.
MOTOKO MUKAI: And aren't microbiologists developing the use of biodegradation by microbes as well, so that's one alternative.
ANTHONY HAY: Sure, I mean for those--
MOTOKO MUKAI: Once we have the contamination.
ANTHONY HAY: Those long-term exposures, microbes can be brought to bear with. Again, it's a question of, how do you minimize exposure.
So one way is to get away from open burn pits, for example, making sure that we're using low-tech, easily deployed devices that can harness that energy, burn it, recover energy that can be used to charge batteries or do other things in the field. But these are the types of technologies that I think are really going to be protective of human health in those types of environments.
TOMMY BRUCE: I think we have time for a couple of more questions. I think you have the mic at the moment?
AUDIENCE: I have a couple really quick questions. One is, are there resources for the consumer where they can find what is settled science? In other words, and I'll give an example in terms of BPA. I do my best to avoid canned foods that may have BPA.
But then a couple months ago, I heard that cash register receipts have BPA, which I have every day have in my pocketbook and in my pocket. Am I suppose to now avoid that? But I mean, that's just one example.
But my question is, what is a consumer to do. We could go on Google and google different chemicals, et cetera, but are there resources that you all would recommend where you can literally find where there's been evidence-based research and that there's settled science, this is proven as harmful, and you can be sure that if you avoid this you're avoiding one more contaminant?
TOMMY BRUCE: So maybe something that could be very useful, and we can do this as a follow-up to some of these specific questions, is maybe I can collect from you all some resources on the web that we can then share with you by email so that you can follow up and then find answers. Because obviously, it's hard here to find solutions to every specific problem.
But I think that what I'm hearing here is that the chemicals you're interested in studying are showing up in everybody's lives in every way. So you want to take, beyond sharing some information after you have some additional thoughts you want to add?
ANTHONY HAY: I think that's a great idea. There are websites that I trust and I'd be happy to share those links with you. But there's not one clearinghouse. I mean, the National Institutes of Environmental Health and Safety have some information. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has some. And the Europeans also have a number of sites that are trusted.
But I agree-- being a wise consumer of information is hard, even for those of us that are working in this field. And so I sense the frustration that you're expressing there. And I think this is one of those things that we need to be able to address.
And part of TSCA is for regulation, part of TSCA is also for communication. So the toxic release inventory is involved in letting people know what chemicals are used where. And so there are laws that we can use better to keep people informed.
TOMMY BRUCE: All right, thank you. Yes sir?
AUDIENCE: A quick toxicity question. I think what you guys are doing is great. Dealing with, though, you haven't touched on one area that I've been researching, and which is in EMFs, Electromagnetic Field Publishing. They're talking like the Bioinitiative Report. Martin Blank at Columbia, a lot of information about above two milligauss it starts to produce cancer and so forth. And I'm wondering if that's going to eventually come into this dialogue or your program, because we have this [? synergy ?] here.
TOMMY BRUCE: Have you have any thoughts about that?
ANTHONY HAY: I have no comment. It's just outside of my area of expertise, but it is a very interesting question.
TOMMY BRUCE: Right, go ahead, sir.
AUDIENCE: I have a comment and a question. The general thesis is avoiding exposure in any event for any chemical. I've done a lot of work in this field. I'm an environmental attorney, so I have to deal with these risks all the time over decades.
My impression is the research on BPA and phthalates and a number of other things, to say the least, the science is not there. A lot of people believe that BPA has being approved by other countries and FDA and other international organizations over many years. And the testing that underlies the potential concerns about phthalates and BPA and some other things are talking about results in test tubes.
There's a big difference between a result in a test tube and an effect in a person, and there's a level of effect in a person. I can be a little bit drowsy, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's an adverse effect. So it's not free to do these things that we're talking about here to avoid the most exposures. So science is required.
So the question is, what adverse evidence do we have to avoid things like BPA in a plastic drinking bottle. My wife just banned all BPA plastics in my house.
TOMMY BRUCE: That works.
AUDIENCE: What science has she done that I don't know about. But what sciences in there in BPA that causes us to spend this additional money-- and it'd be a lot of additional money-- to take BPA out of cans, which we now use to avoid botulism.
ANTHONY HAY: For you as a middle-aged white male, we're not concerned about you. Don't take it personally. And so I personally am not overly concerned about BPA in my life, but unborn children, pregnant women-- so these are the sensitive populations that we need to be focusing our legislation on. Because in many cases, exposures and the timing of exposure are what's really critical, and that's what makes the research difficult to do.
And so we're looking at reproductive endpoints. And yes--
AUDIENCE: It's a great pick, but the evidence is lacking there too.
ANTHONY HAY: Well, I guess one of the things that we need to do as consumers is to look at who's funding what research and what are the outcomes. So 75% of all statistics are made up, it's what I've heard. But that 75% of outcome seems to correlate well with funding source.
And so we need to be skeptical of who's funding what, what the outcomes are. I'm not going to speak specifically to BPA, but I think just being wise consumers of information and realizing that there are concerns, but minimizing chemical exposure to everything just isn't possible. So just managing the risks and realizing, OK, who are the sensitive populations, who do we need to worry about, I think that's the more rational approach that we need to take.
TOMMY BRUCE: And one last question.
AUDIENCE: Hi, this isn't my field, but I have read on it a bit. And I guess the precautionary principle operates in Europe and in Canada and would say, if we think it's going to be harmful, well, then, we should stop it because it would be a long time before we move beyond the test tube. What are your thoughts?
Or perhaps this is more for a lobbyist, a political analyst, than you all. But what are the chances of getting more of the precautionary principle into TSCA? I guess, I would love to also see it operating at the FDA, but it doesn't seem to-- I grew up in Canada, but I'm now [INAUDIBLE].
ANTHONY HAY: Good question, eh. So one of the slides that I showed the folks on the Hill today was about the dropping levels of mercury regulations. Or basically, over the last 25 years, the level of harm for mercury has dropped 30-fold. So we know now that levels that we thought were safe 30 years ago are not safe anymore.
And part of I think the answer to your question is empowering the EPA to make regulatory law without requiring statutory provision so that they can use the best science to come up with levels, recommended daily allowances, or whatever it is, so that they're not dependent on whoever is in power at any given time to come up with a law that gives them the power. So empowering the EPA to do science-based regulatory limit setting, I think, is the answer there. And by doing that, we allow the precautionary principle to be incorporated into the regulatory process.
MOTOKO MUKAI: And also to point out, in order to employ those precautionary principles, we need alternatives, safer alternatives. And right now, I think the funding is not going, or the effort of the government is not going so much for creating these safe alternatives, but focusing on, does BPA or phthalates have really toxicology effect, and spending a lot of money on it. But what we should instead be doing, if there is suspect that it could be doing those harmful effects on humans, we should be starting to look for alternatives.
And instead of just replacing with BPS and other similar toxic chemicals, we should be really looking for those really safe chemicals. So that's where we should be focusing on.
TOMMY BRUCE: Thank you, Motoko. Margaret, do you have a last--
AUDIENCE: One last quick short comment about the problem with TSCA, I think, has been historically the plasticity of the unreasonable risk threshold.
ANTHONY HAY: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Sometimes it's high and sometimes it's low. And that's been a real big problem for the agency, especially when they get to court.
ANTHONY HAY: Right.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes.
ANTHONY HAY: So I think this is where simply rewording the legislation would be powerful. Reasonable and customary would be-- and GAO makes an argument in this case. I mean, that's what led to the court demand the overturn of the legislation with asbestos, because that legal definition was out of sync with the scientific definition. So making sure those are in sync and that the legislation is worded in a way to capture that will be a powerful tool.
AUDIENCE: There's some environmental lawyers who would differ with you.
ANTHONY HAY: OK, yeah, I'm sure.
MOTOKO MUKAI: I know the current--
AUDIENCE: I just happen to know about the law.
MOTOKO MUKAI: I know the current bill kept that unreasonable risk. So unless there's clear definition of what unreasonable risk is going to be, we still would have problems, even if this bill goes through.
TOMMY BRUCE: Even if it goes through, right? Margaret, do you have any last thoughts?
MARGARET FREY: I guess we're always weighing the risks and the benefits of using different chemicals against each other. And when there's a push-- again, my background is more in the textile industry, and that industry over the years has moved away from using a lot of different kinds of toxic chemicals to using more naturally occurring materials like enzymes to do the same processes, and so moving away from doing things in toxic solvents to now doing it in water with enzymes in it.
So I guess I think with the proper motivation and drive, it's not necessarily that we have to give up all the benefits and that we can't reduce the toxicity of the things around us. But always those things are in some sort of balance.
TOMMY BRUCE: So thank you very much. This has been an enlightening hour. And thank you for all your questions. Clearly, we're not going to settle this completely. But hopefully you all may have had some impact today in moving the argument forward for good regulation. And in fact, and I would think that you would like to join me in thanking Margaret and Motoko and Anthony for being here with us today.
These are researchers who matter. And we're going to be working to bringing them back and bringing some of their colleagues here. And as part of our effort that I was describing a bit earlier, some of my colleagues tomorrow will be doing focus groups with alumni to get a good sense of what's on your mind and what do you think about these efforts, and so forth and so on.
And so please, let us know what you think. We thrive in University Communications, and my colleagues in other parts of the university, in understanding what's of interest to you so that we can bring our colleagues to you to have these kinds of conversations. So thank you for your participation.
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