The recall of 28 million boxes of Kellogg's cereals on June 25 was just one more reminder that we are surrounded by chemicals that may or may not be safe for us.
Kellogg says the cause for the recall was a chemical called 2-methylnaphthalene. It was in the packaging, and gave the cereal a bad taste and smell. Some consumers experienced nausea and diarrhea after eating cereal from the contaminated boxes.
Is 2-methylnaphthalene safe for human contact and consumption? Well, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn't really sure.
They have no information as to how this chemical might impact human health. Neither does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), though they've been asking the chemical industry for years about this substance.
Yet there it is in cereal boxes.
About 80,000 chemicals are being used in U.S. consumer products. The FDA isn't up on most of them.
How has this situation come about?
The Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976 exempted a whopping 62,000 chemicals from government regulation. As it happens, 2-methylnaphthalene was one of these favored chemicals. New chemicals don't need to be evaluated for safety either.
The FDA trusts companies to regulate themselves and inform the FDA if the companies think the government should know anything.
On the basis of this voluntary data from companies looking out for their own self-interest and their own bottom line, the FDA would then decide whether or not to take a look at anything.
The FDA does not have direct knowledge about 2-methylnaphthalene but they do know about the toxicity of its sibling, methylnaphthalene. Methylnaphthalene comes from crude oil and coal tar.
The EPA says that methylnaphthalene is a byproduct of combustion by coal, petroleum-based fuels, tobacco and wood. Methylnaphthalene has been produced and used in the U.S. since 1986 or earlier.
In 1998 the EPA asked companies such as BP, Chevron, Exxon, Fina Oil, Mobil Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Shell and Sunoco, to submit basic safety data on 2-methylnaphthalene. As of yet, no data has been submitted.
The FDA knows alot about another relative, naphthalene.