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Gina Solomon’s Blog

Countdown to Earth Day: Chemical Reform is Closer Today!

Gina Solomon

Posted April 15, 2010 in Health and the Environment

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The original Earth Day of 1970 ushered in a decade of progress in protecting public health and the environment. Landmark laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed in the years that followed the first Earth Day celebration. We can thank the forward-thinking lawmakers and the active public from that era for the fact that our rivers no longer catch fire, and that the air in many neighborhoods (but alas, not all) is clearer and more breathable.

But the legacy of Earth Day 1970 also left us with a legacy problem: Toxic chemicals.

Maybe it was because the momentum from the first Earth Day began to fade in 1976, but the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which passed in that year, was a signature flop. As my colleague, Daniel Rosenberg explains in his excellent summary of the flaws in this law:

Poor TSCA.  It was intended to stem the rising tide of toxic chemicals to which the public was regularly exposed, in their homes, the workplace and the marketplace.  Unfortunately, it started off on the wrong foot , grandfathering the 62,000 chemicals then in use out of new testing and review for safety.  In addition, the law was written in a way that has made it extremely difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish which chemicals may be harmful and impose regulatory controls on even those that are widely known to be unsafe – carcinogens like asbestos for example – to which people continue to be widely exposed.  The list of TSCA’s problems and failures is long, and the cumulative result of those failures is that, 40 years after Earth Day, we continue to be in the dark about the health and environmental effects of thousands of chemicals in use in all kinds of products, and we don’t really have a functioning system for addressing those chemicals that are unsafe or for protecting the public.

How right he is. Thanks to this worthless 34-year-old law, I have spent my entire professional career treating patients exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplaces, communities, and homes, and researching the health effects of chemicals because so little information is available about what chemicals are in our bodies and what they are doing to our health.

Now, as we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, things may be about to change.

Today, Senator Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. At the same time, Representatives Rush and Waxman introduced the draft Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 [pdf alert]. Both of these bills represent major advances over the status quo. They will give the public much more information about chemicals in the environment and in products, they will require companies to prove that chemicals are safe, and they will authorize EPA to take strong action to address threats to human health and the environment.

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm sitting down to give both of these bills a very close read. After all, they need to get the science right if this law is really going to work. There are already some issues that need to be fixed if we really want to be sure children will be protected from toxic chemicals. For example, the current legislation could:

  • Allow hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products without first being tested and shown to be safe.
  • Fail to immediately restrict production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, such as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals.
  • Overlook important recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences about how EPA should determine the safety of chemicals.

 There's still a long road ahead until this important job is done. We will need plenty of help to remind legislators that although the chemical companies may have lots of paid lobbyists, their constituents really care about safe chemicals and safe families. More information about the law and about hazardous chemicals is available from NRDC here. Join or get updates from the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition.

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Comments

Rihana MaxApr 16 2010 05:40 PM

Making industrial chemicals safer is something we can all get behind. If we want safer chemicals and a safer environment then we must use nonanimal methods of testing.

Currently, many toxicity tests are based on experiments in animals and use methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

The blueprint for development and implementation for nonanimal testing is the National Research Council report, "Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy in 2007." This report calls for a shift away from the use of animals in toxicity testing. The report also concludes that human cell- and computer-based approaches are the best way to protect human health because they allow us to understand more quickly and accurately the varied effects that chemicals can have on different groups of people. They are also more affordable and more humane.

These methods are ideal for assessing the real world scenarios such as mixtures of chemicals, which have proven problematic using animal-based test methods. And, they're the only way we can assess all chemicals on the market.

GuyApr 23 2010 12:15 PM

As a trained laboratory chemist, I can assure you that for chemicals with unknown toxicities, we protect ourselves by minimizing our exposure within the lab. We often don't know the impact of the chemicals on our own biology and so err on the side of caution when it comes to exposure.

When it comes to our lax attitude regarding chemical disposal in this country, it is truly frightening. Peruse the Toxic Release Inventory for your neighborhood and see what goes into the air each day in your neighborhood. Underground Injection Control is another practice that endangers our potable groundwater supply through accidental releases despite our best attempts to pump our toxic waste into underground holding tanks.

The point is that it is supremely arrogant to ignore the potential side effects of pumping chemicals with unknown toxicities into the environment through NPDES outfall pipes into rivers, lakes, and oceans. From pesticide runoff from massive industrial agriculture. From refineries spewing hundreds of thousands of tons of Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) into the air daily.

If it is best practice for a person skilled in the art of Chemistry to avoid exposing themselves to chemicals of unknown toxicity, then our public health and safety agencies need to apply a similar standard for Toxic Releases.

It is irresponsible for us to allow an industry to pollute the environment that directly benefits from an increase in sickness. We need the chemicals to do the research to cure the disease. The question is, perhaps we could beat cancer by limiting our exposure to toxic chemicals in our drinking water supplies.

In our air supplies.

In our food supplies.

In our daily lives.

It is an intrusion into our lives and we have a responsibility to demand action. Play watchdog in your neighborhood to see what kind of corporate and municipal Toxic Releases occur in your hometown. Ask yourself, do I really need to breathe in Xylene? How much cyanide and mercury should I be drinking in a day? If this pesticide is a growth promoter, and cancer is largely an uninhibited growth of cells, is it possible that these pesticides promote unnatural cell growth in humans? The jury is out, but we should demand prudent laws as a measure for public health and safety.

Buy local Organic produce now to help diminish the demand for chemicals in your daily life.

marie-Christine Maitre de tarragonApr 24 2010 09:23 AM

As long as we sign up for CAP And Trade all our efforts are obsolete.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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