Toxic Chemicals in Food and Environment: Scientists Urge Lawmakers to Create Better Policies

Flawed governmental policies and oversight are to blame for failures to protect human and environmental health from toxic chemicals, argue scientists.


From high levels of lead found in school drinking water to industry sites releasing toxic heavy metals into the air, over 40 years of regulations in the United States have failed to protect human and environmental health from toxic chemicals.

Researchers contend that these failures result from the flawed governance over the continued production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals, and lay out a plan for improved policies.

Researchers examined toxic chemical governance through five high-profile case studies:

1-lead in school drinking water

2-heavy metals in industry

3-sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted by fossil fuel combustion

4-BPA in packaging that can leach into food and drinks

5-glyphosate. the key ingredient in RoundUp weed killer and one of the most commonly applied pesticides in the U.S.

Findings and recommendations

• Too often, toxic chemical risks only become known after enough harm has been done to communities to elicit a social response.

• The U.S.’s current regulatory processes generally only mitigate or act retroactively rather than proactively.

• We need a policy framework that goes beyond permitting allowable levels of toxic risk by seeking to eliminate and replace them.

• Investments need to be made into not only investigating the consequences of toxic substances, but more importantly, finding alternative ways of producing goods and services that don’t generate those toxic substances.

Four major paths forward:

  • Shift thinking around toxic chemicals management from one of mitigating risk to one of eliminating risk.
  • Support diverse forms of knowledge. Currently, the knowledge that is used to assess the extent and risk of harm tends to favor industry over public and environmental health advocates.
  • Increase the representativeness and transparency of democratic processes, and allow for the direct involvement of affected communities in policy design and implementation.
  • Create policies that identify and incentivize ways of producing substances that meet the goals and needs of society without exposing people to toxic chemicals, and invest in the research and education required to support such innovation.


Journal Reference: Ariana M Chiapella, Zbigniew J Grabowski, Mary Ann Rozance, Ashlie D Denton, Manar A Alattar, Elise F Granek. Toxic Chemical Governance Failure in the United States: Key Lessons and Paths Forward. BioScience, 2019; DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biz065 overview