If you are like most Americans, you have an expectation that our federal regulatory agencies will protect us from unsafe chemicals found in the products we use everyday. We expect our children's toys, baby bottles and drinking water to be safe.
As lawmakers remain understandably pre-occupied and attempt to get their legislative arms around the instability of our economic future, scientists, physicians, and consumer advocates are waiting for congress to take up long overdue legislation that will change our country's chemical regulatory law, The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA).
TSCA was the first environmental law that acknowledged the possible harm to humans posed by chemical exposures. Passed in 1976, with a goal of "protecting the public health and the environment," TSCA is considered the weakest of all the environmental laws today and the only one that has never been amended.
When first enacted, 63,000 chemicals were grandfathered in with the presumption of safety. However, no one knows if these chemicals are truly safe. Since then, approximately 18,000 new chemicals have entered the marketplace with little or no safety data.
It's difficult to comprehend how forty years after Rachel Carson first warned us about the lethal health effects caused by toxic chemicals, and thirty-three years after the passage of TSCA, the EPA has never evaluated the safety of most chemicals in today's consumer products. Since being charged with the responsibility, just 200 of the 80,000 chemicals used in the marketplace have been reviewed and only 5 have been actually restricted or banned.
Following the same flawed policies as other federal agencies that have proven to be "recipes for disaster", the EPA has a history of assuming chemicals safe simply because industry tells them so. Recent concerns about chemicals in baby bottles, children's toys and chemicals in our water supply are a direct result of this weak federal law.
So why is this issue so important now?
For decades scientists have tried to alert us about how chemical pollution affects the health and well being of children. And we know children are far more susceptible to the deleterious effects caused by chemical exposures than adults, particularly during critical windows of development. We also know that some toxins like lead, mercury, BPA, PCB's, flame retardants, and pesticides can cause serious effects that are not immediately obvious and may go undetected for years.
"Protecting child health is not so much a matter of research, but rather a
matter of policy and advocacy . . . we have experience and toxicological
research findings demonstrating the adverse health effects of hazardous chemicals on children and recognize that children are more sensitive
than adults to chemical exposures . . .We also know that childhood
disabilities from chemical exposure during development are often not
treatable and therefore must be prevented."
Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders (Dec. 2004)
A study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) may be the best illustration of TSCA's failed legacy. Working through the Red Cross, researchers analyzed the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborn infants and found 287 different chemicals.
"Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied."
Body Burden - The Pollution in Newborns (2005)
Simply stated, before they can take their first breath, America's babies are coming into the world pre-polluted. Some of these chemicals are also linked to other serious and life-threatening illnesses like asthma, allergies, autism, ADHD, obesity, and infertility.
In an effort to influence lawmakers on the threats posed by unregulated chemical exposures, 200 respected children's health experts released a consensus statement emphasizing their concerns and need for urgent action.
"The accumulated research evidence suggest that prevention efforts
against toxic exposures to environmental chemicals should focus on
protecting the fetus and small child as highly vulnerable populations.
Given the ubiquitous exposure to many environmental toxicants, there
needs to be renewed efforts to prevent harm. Such prevention should
not await detailed evidence on individual hazards to be produced,
because the delays in decision-making would then lead to propagation
of toxic exposures and their long-term consequences."
The Faroes Statement: Human Health Effects of Developmental Exposure to Chemicals
in Our Environment (2008)
In addition, the health care costs associated with all these preventable illnesses are enormous. It is estimated that childhood cancer, asthma, and neurodevelopmental disorders and lead poisoning alone cost American taxpayers nearly $55 billion annually. It stands to reason that by reforming TSCA, we would not only prevent harm to the most vulnerable, but also take a positive first step towards controlling soaring health care costs.
Despite these dire warnings from children's health experts, the EPA simply has almost no authority to protect people from even the most hazardous chemicals under TSCA.
The failure of TSCA is best exemplified by EPA's decade long battle, and ultimate inability, to ban the deadly carcinogen asbestos. A chemical so toxic it has been linked to hundreds of thousands of cancer-related deaths.
Affirmation that the current law is broken, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in January listing the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals as one of the top three areas in need of "fundamental reform" and identifying the federal program as one at "high risk for fraud and mismanagement". (link)
Mindful of the real life consequences resulting from this regulatory failure, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) are once again leading the charge to change TSCA and have pledged to re-introduce the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act in the coming months.
"Everyday, consumers rely on household products that contain hundreds
of chemicals", said Senator Lautenberg. "The American people expects the federal government to keep families safe by testing chemicals - but the government is letting them down."
The first comprehensive chemical reform policy since the passage of TSCA, The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act would:
•Protect kids by reversing the burden of proof; requiring manufacturers to demonstrate new chemicals are safe for infants, children and other vulnerable populations in order to get on the market.
•Require an expedited EPA review of chemicals found in people, particularly those found in baby cord blood, chemicals known to be potentially harmful would go to the top of the list.
•Requires biomonitoring to determine what chemicals are in people.
•Require manufacturers to provide data on a chemical's toxicity and gives EPA the authority to request all data needed to make a safety finding.
•Require all health and safety data be made available to the public; under current law, manufacturers can claim "confidential business information" for virtually all data, including the chemical's name.
•Give EPA the clear authority to ban or restrict chemicals and individual chemical uses.
•Protects state and local rights.
•Allows for an exemption if the use of the chemical is in the interest of national security or would result in significant disruption to the economy and there is no feasible alternative available.
The issue of keeping our kids safe should be an easy one for members of Congress IF their primary interest is protecting our children. However, we all know there are powerful influences in Washington who will be opposed to chemical reform and want to continue doing "business as usual."
Congressional action is long overdue and urgently needed. We can continue to have spirited debates on how best to stimulate the economy, end the war in Iraq, tax cuts and health care, but our country can no longer afford regulatory failures like The Toxic Substances Control Act.
As recent events have revealed, the federal government is often too slow to address regulatory reforms. It is unconscionable that America's babies are being born pre-polluted with chemical we know can pose a threat to their development and wellbeing. With the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, Congress has the opportunity to change the failed policies of the past and set a higher standard that will truly protect our children from harmful chemicals and give them a healthier start in life.
You can help pass the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act by calling your member of Congress and asking them to be a cosponsor of the bill and by joining thousands of other supporters by signing the Kid-Safe Declaration at http://www.kidsafechemicals.org/