Discussions of toxic chemicals tend to feel pretty abstract. We can't really see these things, after all, and even if someone tries to point out that these chemicals go into the manufacturing of just about everything we consume -- from cosmetics to carpeting to baby bottles -- it's pretty easy to shut out the information as disquieting noise. Even when health experts point out how certain common chemicals have been linked to everything from cancer to neurological disease, we can still tune them out. We all gotta die of something.
But when the science begins to accumulate that chemicals may also be damaging our children's health -- may be leading to everything from early onset pubescence to reproductive and developmental abnormalities -- we start to pay closer attention. We adults may be cavalier with our own bodies, but we tend to perk up when our children are at risk.
Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed into the toxic chemical debate with genuine force. It issued a stinging report condemning the way synthetic chemicals are regulated in this country, arguing forcefully for a far more vigorous discussion of the way chemicals are affecting our health. Pediatricians should know: they have to deal with sick kids, worried parents, and a frustrating lack of information about the chemicals that are causing such a stir.
Here's how it came about. In 1962, Rachel Carson's landmark book Silent Spring described a post-war world saturated in synthetic chemicals, and rang a bell for toxic chemical regulation that was heard far and wide. The book, considered one of the most important texts of the 20th century, was widely admired by readers and widely condemned by the chemical industry, which managed to fight off federal chemical regulation for 14 years.
Finally, in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed. Though a landmark, TSCA has nonetheless turned out to be woefully inadequate. To begin with, the law grandfathered in tens of thousands of chemicals, thus exonerating them from meaningful health testing. It also allowed industries to police themselves, rather than subjecting them to independent scrutiny, and allowed companies to hide ingredients considered "trade secrets." In more than 30 years, TSCA has led to the banning exactly five chemicals -- out of nearly 80,000 compounds in common use today.
TSCA "is widely recognized to have been ineffective in protecting children, pregnant women, and the general population from hazardous chemicals in the marketplace," the AAP report says. "Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of chemicals have entered commerce and the environment, often in extremely large quantities (e.g., multiple millions of pounds per year). There has also been an explosion of knowledge about special vulnerabilities and differential exposures that children and pregnant women have to environmental toxicants. A growing body of research indicates potential harm to child health from a range of chemical substances."
In this decade alone, the chemical industry has produced or imported 27 trillion pounds of synthetic chemicals each year, the equivalent of 250 pounds per person -- and this does not include chemicals used for fuels, pesticides, pharmaceuticals or food products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented that many of these chemicals can be found not just in our rivers and streams, but in our very tissues, breast milk and blood. How has this come to be?
Walk through any Big Box store and you'll see products made from these chemicals on every shelf: in baby bottles and children's pajamas; in nail polish and skin cream; in air "fresheners" and laundry detergents. There are products in the Automotive section with labels listing ingredients that are carcinogenic; as bad as this is, at least the products have labels. There are products in the cosmetics aisle made with the same ingredients, but you will not find ingredient labels anywhere. Where would you rather have a carcinogen, on your engine block or on your skin?
The trouble is, industry has operated for decades without any meaningful outside scrutiny. It has convinced regulators that self-monitoring is preferable to government oversight; it has convinced consumers that company "trade secrets" are more important than labels telling us what these products are actually made of; and it has convinced all of us that chemicals are "innocent until proven guilty." That is, if someone, somewhere, can somehow prove than a specific chemical compound in specific consumer product has caused a specific illness -- cancer, say, or a developmental disorder, or a hormonal imbalance -- AND can somehow mount a convincing legal case, THEN the company will consider removing a product from the shelf or changing its chemical formula. This is the system that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers dangerously broken.
"As children grow and mature, their bodies may be especially vulnerable to certain chemical exposures during critical windows of development," the AAP says." Neurological and endocrine systems have demonstrated particular sensitivity to environmental toxicants at certain stages of growth. These differences in biological susceptibility and exposures in children versus adults support the need for strong consideration of children in chemical policies."
Given the utter absence of federal policy on toxic chemicals, health and environmental groups in a growing number of states have been doing their best to act on their own. Industry lobbyists have a much harder time muscling thousands of state legislators than they do keep a few hundred members of Congress in line. The trouble with state legislation, though, is that toxic chemicals (like greenhouse gases) do not stay in one place. Think of acid rain: the forests in the Adirondacks were not suffering because of pollution generated in New York; they suffered from sulfur dioxide blowing in from industrial plants in Ohio. The same is true for toxic chemicals: only by regulating them nationally will we have any chance of keeping them from entering our bodies -- and our children's bodies -- in our own homes.