Fixing Our Broken Chemicals Policy

While Afghanistan, the economy, Copenhagen and health care grabbed headlines this week, the Senate EPW committee held a hearing on an issue that could significantly influence those big ticket items.
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While Afghanistan, the economy, Copenhagen and health care grabbed headlines this week, on December 2nd, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works committee, held a hearing on an issue that could significantly influence three out of four of those big ticket items. That issue is chemicals - the synthetic and industrial chemicals, largely petrochemical in origin that permeate every aspect of our lives - and the inadequacies of TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), the primary law aimed at protecting Americans from chemical hazards

Also slipping in under the headlines was introduction of the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 by Senator John Kerry and Representative Jim Moran. Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals that can interfere with the body's own endocrine hormones that regulate reproduction, metabolism, development, and other vital systems. Chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors (EDCs) are used in countless consumer products. Evidence of their adverse health effects - such chemicals have been linked to health disorders that include diabetes, obesity, reproductive and neurological problems - has been growing so steadily that the American Medical Association is urging policies to reduce public exposure to these substances. This new bill would increase research on EDCs with the aim of protecting public health by restricting their use.

Chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors are among the 80,000-plus chemicals now registered for commerce in the Untied States. While we know a great deal about many o these chemicals, despite the many environmental and consumer protection law on the books, the vast majority of these chemicals' health effects remain unknown or incompletely tested. And while our rivers no longer run with toxics that catch fire and children no longer run behind DDT spray trucks, we have not succeeded in keeping hazardous chemicals out of places they shouldn't be - namely our bodies and those of our infants and children.

For the past decade or more the CDC has been testing Americans for the presence of industrial chemicals and has found them consistently in the overwhelming majority of people tested. Comparable studies elsewhere have produced similar results, including the Environmental Working Group study released this week that found nearly 250 different industrial chemicals - including components of polycarbonate plastics flame retardants and chemicals that make nonstick, stain repellant, and greaseproof coatings - in newborn babies. Clearly something has gone wrong.

"America's system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken," said Sen. Lautenberg at the December 2 hearing. "There are hundreds of industrial chemicals in our bodies... and those of our children," he said. "Some of these chemicals are not harmful but some are," he continued. "These children face the possibility of chronic lifelong health problems from the day they are born," said Lautenberg who went on to cite a 2002 study that found 5% of childhood cancers, 10% of neurobehavioral disorders, and 30% of children's asthma cases associated with toxic chemicals. "It's time to sound the alarm,"said Lautenberg.

"It's time," he continued, to "put the burden of proof where it belongs, on chemical companies, rather than waiting for a chemical to hurt somebody."

One of the problems, is that in the 33 years TSCA has been in effect, the EPA has only been able to issue regulations on a handful of chemicals and require toxicity testing on about 200. To change this, TSCA must be reformed. Both environmental advocates and industry agree TSCA is needed, and Lautenberg announced that he'll soon be introducing such legislation.

Among TSCA's faults, both Lautenberg and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the committee, are its burdens of proof. They are so great, Jackson noted, that the EPA has not even been able to fully restrict use of asbestos.

"The responsibility for providing adequate health and safety information should rest on industry" said Jackson. If industry doesn't provide the information, EPA should be able to get this information "without the delays and obstacles currently in place, or excessive claims of confidential business information," said Jackson.

"Companies," said Lautenberg, "must be required to prove their chemical products are safe not wait until they've harmed someone."

Jackson also called for increased research and development of safer chemicals through green chemistry.

Coinciding with the Senate hearing was a statement signed by 13 states also calling for TSCA reform. Among the states' positions: Require chemical manufacturers to prove product safety and new regulations to protect the most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women - a group particularly sensitive to endocrine disruptors.

"Wouldn't protecting the public from harmful chemicals reduce healthcare costs?" Lautenberg asked rhetorically. Similarly, wouldn't reducing use of hazardous petrochemicals help reduce our overall reliance on fossil fuels while spurring development and markets for new, safer materials? A tall order to be sure, but ultimately, I think, where we need to go.

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