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Will reform efforts protect us from so-called "safe" chemicals?
Kathy Attar, MPH
July 27, 2015
As the science continues to evolve on the ways our health is impacted by harmful environmental chemicals it is crucial that any reform of our federal chemical policy empower the EPA to move quickly on the worst chemicals and utilize the best available science to assess chemical hazards. Just within the last two months new studies have revealed: mixtures of "safe" chemicals potentially raising cancer risk when combined and, as discussed below, "safer" plastics increasing the possibility of health problems in children.
Two studies looked at the relationship between newer phthalate chemicals, DIDP and DINP and insulin resistance and increased blood pressure in children and adolescents. Phthalates are widely used in consumer products as plasticizers of polyvinyl chloride to increase flexibility and can be found in a variety of settings ranging from flooring, clear food wrap, and intravenous tubing. Because phthalates are not bound to the polyvinyl chloride polymer, they can easily leach into food, making ingestion one of the major routes for human exposure. Children and adolescents with the highest levels of these phthalates had an increase in insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and higher blood pressure. DIDP and DINP are replacement phthalates for DEHP, an older chemical with known health risks.
DIDP and DINP have not been substantially studied for toxicity because these studies are not required for market approval under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is the law that regulates hazardous chemicals in our consumer products in the U.S. There have been numerous attempts to reform TSCA throughout the last decade or so. Reform is in the air once again this summer.
We now have two bills that seek to replace the broken law. The house bill passed in June with bipartisan support. The senate bill is awaiting a floor vote which could happen within the next few weeks. Unfortunately, both bills are flawed. The house version at least is more clearly drafted and has fewer loopholes and rollbacks than the senate bill.
The senate bill in critical areas is weaker than what we have now. For instance, it would preempt state action before EPA has acted (creating a regulatory void) with extremely stringent requirements for waivers of such preemption. EPA's authority to require notification when a hazardous chemical is used in a product in new ways would also be rolled-back-making it harder for EPA to protect us from these chemicals or even know whether they are in a product. It also has a low-priority chemical category that we feel creates a large loophole through which chemicals could pass without going through a rigorous safety evaluation.
There is the notion among some that public health interests are making "the perfect the enemy of the good" in reforming the TSCA. I cry foul on this statement. Public health advocates including doctors, nurses and parents (like myself) are not simply saying no to reform efforts. We have been advocating for the house bill with key changes -- changes that would afford the EPA a meaningful opportunity with resources and a workable framework- to screen, test and regulate toxic chemicals found in the marketplace. The house bill is not our dream bill but it can be a vehicle to improve our current system and protect our children, workers and communities.
As a public health advocate the litmus test for me is: will the senate legislation help to slow the rise of chronic diseases linked to environmental toxins we are currently experiencing in the U.S.? In its current form it won't.