I thought of fulvene, also known as 5-methylene-1,3-cyclopentadiene, when I read the following in a new law review article (funded, strangely enough, by a National Science Foundation grant):
Tort actions may impel industry to take voluntary steps to redesign chemical molecules ... to be less toxic.
Fulvene you see is made up of six carbon and six hydrogen atoms. So is benzene and so are a few other molecules. The point of course is that while you might be able to rearrange a car's component parts to make it somehow safer while leaving it a car you can't rearrange benzene's atoms (or those of any other complex molecule for that matter) without turning benzene into something else. Something with a different boiling point, solubility, reactivity and the like. Something that cannot, as benzene can, be used to make the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
The law review article is "Litigating Toxic Risks Ahead of Regulation: Biomonitoring Science in the Courtroom" and it dovetails with "How Chemicals Affect Us" which you've likely seen in the NYTimes. Each claims that very low levels of exposure to substances previously thought safe may be causing subtle changes and each ends with a call for regulation; the former by way of lowering evidentiary standards in tort proceedings so as to bring about more claims and bigger awards and the latter by way of the regulatory state. Irrespective of wielder the same tool is urged: one that resolves all uncertainties in favor of stasis, of inaction, i.e. the Precautionary Principle.
"Litigating Toxic Risks", funded under a $366,785 research grant for "Toxic Ignorance and the New Right-to-Know: The Implications of Biomonitoring for Regulatory Science", proceeds from the hypothesis that "toxic tort litigation has emerged as a means of controlling risks." It recounts 1) the number of chemicals that have never been tested for toxicity (tens of thousands); 2) the non-stop synthesis of new ones; 3) the purported shortcomings of TSCA; 4) the fact that asbestos and lead paint are made of chemicals and turned out to adversely affect some of those exposed; 5) the apparently obvious conclusion "it follows that many of today's routine chemical exposures are cause for great health concern"; and, finally, 6) the ability of biomonitoring to demonstrate those chemicals to which we've been exposed. The authors then deduce that the effort to regulate chemicals via toxic tort litigation "depends greatly on whether courts are able to apply tort theories to the scientific data used in appraising the health risks of chemicals".
They lament, however, that there's no cause of action for simply being exposed to the activities of other people; that plaintiffs must show harm - an adverse health effect - before they can prevail. Regarding those chemicals to which everyone is exposed in low doses they complain that it's not practical for plaintiffs to do epidemiological studies since there is (unsurprisingly) no unexposed reference population. Furthermore, the cost and time involved in doing epi and tox studies are significant. So, if standards of proof could just be lowered the class action mechanism would expose potential defendants to existential liability risks for harms they probably didn't cause (see pg. 6) so that vast sums could be extracted from them and the production of synthetic chemicals would be thereby curtailed or eliminated.
Additional helpful measures would include dropping the requirement that class members demonstrate that they have actually been exposed to the substance in question. As support for this assertion the authors write "[t]he courts' current stance contradicts standard scientific procedure, where it is well recognized that sampling can lead to reliable assumptions about population characteristics". (Really? A calculated sample mean is superior to knowledge of the actual population mean for making conclusions about the population? And superior to even knowing the actual exposure of each member of the population?)
To make sure that as many people as possible can assert medical monitoring claims the article's authors urge "implementation of the precautionary principle in the legal standards required to show significant exposure and increased risk of disease". The precautionary principle apparently will turn every "is it likely" hurdle to plaintiffs' recovery into an "is it possible" speed bump.
As for damages "courts can accept, as legally actionable injuries, subtle health and developmental impacts as well as emotional concern and stress related to chemical exposure."
So far some 50 million different chemical substances have been cataloged and 12,000 new ones are added every day. Most were synthesized by nature rather than by man. Over the eons our ancestors managed to survive in this sea of chemicals, surrounded and inhabited by countless biochemical factories constantly synthesizing new molecules in order to survive in and/or exploit their ever-changing environment - and our ancestors largely did it by synthesizing their own new molecules. We've only had trouble when we've been out-engineered by our biochemical competitors or when we've violated the rule: "all things in moderation". So what's with the chemohysteria over trace exposures and the discovery that our bodies notice and adapt to them on the fly?
I think a large part of it stems from the fact that we've come to realize our genetic code is more toolbox than blueprint; that we're far more impermanent than we ever imagined; and, that so much of what we believed about how it all works, especially decades old myths about the principal causes of human diseases, is being swept away by remorseless empiricism. The attempt to incorporate the Precautionary Principle into the law can thus be seen as part of a deeply conservative movement, standing athwart science, yelling Stop!