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Congress Needs to Update Inadequate Toxics Law

November 13, 2013

Do we require chemicals to be tested for safety before they’re used? Most Americans are shocked when they discover this isn’t the case.

Of 80,000 chemicals in commercial use, only 200 have been studied for possible toxicity. And since manufacturers aren’t required to list all ingredients they use, we don’t know what’s in our everyday consumer products.

The reason for this confusion is that the Toxic Substances Control Act—passed in 1976—is so poorly written that it’s almost impossible to “prove” a chemical is toxic, which in practice means it’s impossible to ban well-known highly toxic and carcinogenic compounds such as asbestos.

After 37 years Congress is considering updating the law, but it keeps getting held up in a Senate committee, so a weakened version of the reform bill that New Jersey Senator Lautenberg created is now being proposed. This is the Chemical Safety Improvement Act—a bill that’s seriously flawed for several reasons and must be improved.

Real reform must specifically address pregnant women, children, the elderly, low-income and other at-risk populations—those who are especially sensitive to toxicity at very low doses or living in places where they’re exposed to high doses.

Fetuses in utero are particularly vulnerable, and their exposure during development is almost certainly the cause of sensitivity to low doses of chemicals, which mimic normal hormone activity and are collectively known as endocrine disruptors. The Endocrine Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have acknowledged the existence of dangers due to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

This universal exposure to toxic chemicals is shown by credible scientific studies to be contributing to serious unhealthy trends. These include obesity; increased allergies; increased neurodevelopmental problems such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities; and, feminization of male infants, early puberty and infertility.

Real reform must also eliminate the red tape that prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the most toxic chemicals. And it must allow states to continue to regulate when the federal government fails to protect us.

Finally, it must provide incentives for the development of safer alternatives to the known bad actors. This way manufacturers will seek out safer alternatives and not hang on to old habits by relying on massive and expensive lobbying or denying the science that is accumulating about the dangers of even very low doses of certain chemicals.

If you’re concerned about toxic chemicals, tell your federal representatives how you feel. You can also urge your state representatives to pass the Toxic Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act in Oregon’s next legislative session. There is no excuse for failing to protect our health from toxic chemicals.

Dr. Susan Katz, a retired pediatrician, is the Board President at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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