Federal regulators are slowly coming to a disquieting conclusion: The level of chemical pollution in the general environment is often equal to the levels around known toxic waste dumps.
Wherever industries and plants have made the consumer goods of modern America, there are now chemicals like benzene, chromium, arsenic and lead. These and dozens of multisyllable compounds are turning up everywhere in the environment and in people's bodies at levels that have been called alarming.
The scope of the situation is sinking in slowly, as is the shift in focus it will require. Either the chemical findings indicate a widespread danger that somehow must be dealt with, or all the flap over abandoned dump sites has been vastly overblown and the readings mean little.
No one is yet ready to make that choice. The science of linking a given dose of chemical to a particular health result is still in its earliest infancy, with researchers frantically gathering data. All that is really known so far is that the chemicals are everywhere and that cleaning up the old dumps, the billowing smokestacks and the auto exhausts is not going to make them go away.
"The whole economy is built on the use and production of chemicals," said Eckhardt C. Beck, cheif of water and hazardous materials regulation for the Environmental Protection Agency. "We're documenting a general prevalence of chemicals throughout the environment that you can't really trace to any one source."
In the Love Canal area of New York, residents panicked at the discovery that their basements were oozing chemical goo from a long-inactive waste disposal ditch. After dozens of studies involving millions of dollars and two years of agonizing at every government level, the families are still demanding to be moved out, and their homes are worthless.
Yet the Hooker Chemical Co., which put the wastes there in the 1940s and 1950s, pointed out that three EPA studies of the air in major U.S. cities found several with chemical readings equal to or worse than those outside the Love Canal homes: Phoenix, Oakland, Los Angeles and several in Texas and New Jersey. "The air inside homes at Love Canal . . . is even cleaner than the outdoor air," Hooker said.
The company also argued that the chemicals detected in Love Canal basements are there at "a small fraction of a percent of what [regulators] would permit for a continuous working environment."
Hooker concluded that the exposure levels at Love Canal are insignificant.
Regulators, however, are beginning to invert that reasoning: exposure levels at Los Angeles and Oakland and the rest of the cities are probably just as significant as those at Love Canal. This is certain to be one of the issues in the protracted litigation that has arisen from the long Love Canal controversy.
The problem is that no one can say for sure yet just how significant any low reading is in terms of health. The chemical industry has been insisting for years that although the compounds may be widely present, no evidence exists to link them to whatever illnesses may be occurring in a particular area. Studies that appear to make such links are all highly controversial.
"There really doesn't appear to be a major health impact from exposure to those chemicals," said Geraldine Cox, technical director for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, a Washington trade group. "Obviously we're working to reduce emissions, but the body can assimilate certain materials and they don't create a problem . . . we're talking about very low ambient levels and the whole question of whether they have any effect just hasn't been answered."
Major studies by several government agencies are now under way in the so-called "Golden Triangle" area of the Texas Gulf Coast around Beaumont and Orange, where roughly 60 percent of the nation's petrochemicals are manufactured.
Several preliminary reports from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have found an outbreak of brain cancer among workers at the Dow Chemical Co. and Union Carbide Co. petrochemical plants there. Checks are under way in five other plants, while scientists try to see whether there might also be unusual rates of stomach, liver, lung or pancreatic cancer.
The companies deny any problem exists. Union Carbide officials noted that the incidence among their workers may not be any higher than among all residents of the area. That, regulators now think, is just what worries them.
Current studies of outdoor air in the Triangle region are finding benzene levels that sources say are high enough to have the EPA very concerned about the possibility of public alarm when they are announced sometime next month.
The survey began as an effort to correlate whatever chemical level is found in the air with whatever level is found in the human bloodstream.
But naming a level won't tell the residents whether they are in any danger from it. The converse is also the case: documenting a health effect won't necessarily tell what caused it.
Dr. Patricia Buffer, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, found "a significant excess" of pancreatic and blood-related cancer deaths, other than leukemia victims, among residents of two Triangle counties. Those victims were more than twice as likely to have worked in the chemical industry than a matched control group of persons who died from other causes.
So what? "We don't know what is responsible so there's no way to say what to regulate," Buffler said. "Regulating the wrong thing would give people a false sense of secruity." Her findings, she noted, don't even eliminate the possibility that polluted groundwater having nothing to do with the chemical plants is responsible. "That would take a different approach than the one I used."
Dr. David Rall, head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which does research for the Department of Health and Human Services, noted that the variety and number of chemicals found in some places make health assessment incredibly complicated.
Two compounds may either magnify or cancel out each other's effects, and many sites show scores of chemicals present. "Just the additive effect is considerable," Rall said. "You put 200 chemicals at harmless doses together and, well . . ."
More and more EPA surveys are coming in with chemical readings that cannot yet be interpreted in terms of danger. "The agency is getting frightened to death about the inconclusiveness of a whole bunch of studies we've got," said Beck. "It's like saying to a cancer patient that he has between six weeks and 10 years to live . . . is that a responsible thing to say? But you have to say something."
In just the Niagara County area of New York, 161 old chemical dump sites have been identified, Beck noted. One called Hyde Park in Niagara Falls contains more than 80,000 tons of the same wastes that were put into Love Canal by Hooker Chemical.
"Until the early 1970s, the site was operated rather carelessly," according to a May 1979 survey by NIOSH. "Large amounts of hazardous chemical leachate undoubtedly escaped the site, contaminating the nearly surrounding areas."
While the report documents the chemicals and levels found and notes the number of cancer cases, infant deaths and so on recorded among the 1,700 or so persons checked, it draws no conclusions and recommends further study.
"The public is going to have to be satisfied with scientists saying they don't know and they won't for several years, and they may never have a definitive answer" on the danger of chemicals common in the environment, said Frank Weir, associate toxicology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.
Like many scientists, he questions whether any of the alarm over the chemical environment is justified. "There's a cry-wolf tendency at EPA now," he said. "All these studies are laced with the words 'possible' and 'likely' and 'could' which means there are no data on the health effects."
There are data, however, on the levels of the chemicals being found, and no one is questioning those.
"Lots of times the findings are of natural chemicals like molybdenum or ozone or even benzene, which is high in forest areas," said Cox of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. "We just have never been out there measuring them before . . . just because something is there doesn't make it harmful."
Regulators are not about to relax just yet, however. "Sure, some parts of the country are relatively pristine," said Beck of the EPA. "But generally, every time we tip up the corner of the carpet we find more dirt under it."