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One Little Boy with Asthma

Posted by Molly Rauch, MPH on February 10, 2011

Last week, in a small Senate hearing room packed standing-room-only with spectators, Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey opened a session on reforming the outdated, 36-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or “Tosca”). We’ve been here before: In the last Congress, Senator Lautenberg introduced a chemical reform bill that, despite several hearings and even more briefings on Capitol Hill, never got very far. (You can read my thoughts about why it didn’t go very far here.) But he is back, aiming to finally, in this legislative session, improve our nation’s chemical regulations.

The Senator explained that 5% of all childhood cancer, and 30% of all childhood asthma, can be attributed to environmental factors. As a grandfather of a little boy with asthma, he said he was “committed to moving TSCA reform legislation in this Congress.”

Indeed it was the little boy with asthma – or rather the many boys and girls across the country with asthma, as well as cancer patients, victims and survivors alike – who functioned as a kind of theme for the hearing, and a welcome theme it was.

Steve Owens, Assistant Administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at EPA, told us his son also has asthma.

Kelly Semrau, Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs, Communication, and Sustainability, SC Johnson, told us one of her two children has asthma.

Frances Beineke, President of the National Resources Defense Council, spoke not about asthma but about her family’s personal experience with cancer – she is a breast cancer survivor, and her husband has had prostate cancer, the two most common cancers in adults, she noted. At this, Senator Lautenberg discussed his family’s history with cancer, including his own (cured) non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as the cancers of his father and uncle, both factory workers.

The fact that the Senator and so many of the witnesses called to testify about TSCA last week discussed asthma and cancer may indicate merely the high incidence of these terrible health problems. But I like to think that their stories of how they and their families have been affected by environmental diseases reflect a growing understanding that TSCA is not solely about the competitiveness of the US chemical industry (which many argue would be improved, not harmed, under a health-protective chemicals management policy). It’s about protecting the health of Americans.

Looked at in this light – which is PSR’s perspective – the chemical industry seems to be missing the point. Cal Dooley, the president of the American Chemistry Council, said at the hearing that “we can’t add inappropriate regulatory burdens” to the U.S. chemical industry, citing the fact that China now eclipses the US in gaining chemical patents as the main specter to fear in this scenario. Although Mr. Dooley said repeatedly that he supported the “modernization of TSCA,” I felt that he lacked an ear for the truly frightening story of the day: the little boy with asthma, Senator Lautenberg’s grandson or anyone’s grandson, struggling to breathe because of exposures to chemicals that never should have been on the market to begin with.

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