Educating about the hazards of chemicals to children
PSR: What is the most important action that toxics advocates can take in the coming year or years to make the world a cleaner, safer place, and why?
Landrigan: The overarching priority for our community over the next several years is passage of the Safe Chemicals Act. This is legislation that has been introduced into each of the last several Congresses by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. The main thrust of the Safe Chemicals Act is to require that chemicals be tested for toxicity before they come to market. The legislation is intended to prevent recurrence of past tragedies in which new chemicals have been brought to market, widely used in consumer products and then found belatedly to cause health problems. Examples include asbestos, tetraethyl lead, thalidomide, DES, phthalates and brominated flame retardants. I’m a pediatrician and from the perspective of a pediatrician, passage of the Safe Chemicals Act is a particular priority because it is children - fetuses in the womb and small children in the first years of postnatal life - who are far and away the members of our society most vulnerable to toxic exposures.
I think our advocacy should focus on educating the public and policymakers about the hazards of chemicals, especially their hazards to children. We should make a very deliberate effort to make this a bipartisan, or better yet a nonpartisan, campaign. The issue has become politicized, and that does not advance the cause. People of every political persuasion have children, and all of us want our children to grow up healthy. We should look for strategies that will build a nonpartisan campaign. For example, I have worked extensively with faith groups which reach across the partisan divide. We also need to partner with groups beyond medicine such as urban planners, chemical engineers and political scientists.
PSR: If the top issue is federal policy reform, what do we make of the fact that, important as that work is, the Safe Chemicals Act has been introduced repeatedly and isn’t getting passed?
Landrigan: We need to be very patient at the federal level and understand that it’s an effort that will likely take a number of years to accomplish. But in the meantime we need to broaden the conversation about the hazards of chemicals and about the need for the legislation. That will educate the public and policy-makers. Then at the same time, we need to be pursuing other, complementary strategies. One approach is to work at levels of government besides the federal level – at the state, city or county level – and to work with various actors such as governors, mayors, state legislators and attorneys general. Some of our successes at these levels include bans on bisphenol A in certain counties and states, labeling requirements, and local laws of many different types to regulate and restrict the use of toxic pesticides.
PSR is in a very good position to work at a local level, because it has chapters across the country. We should be pushing constantly for bans on toxic chemicals, and for anything else that is feasible. It’s important to pick the right allies and the right targets. By the right allies, I mean that we need to identify the elected and appointed officials who are willing to take a firm stand on chemicals and who are blind to questions of political party. We need to look for the people who care about health and care about children and not about ideology.
PSR: Do you see any new issues coming down the pike that we should be preparing to address in the coming years?
Landrigan: Nanomaterials are one new technology about whose potential health effects we know very little. Billions have been spent on engineering research and on applications of nanomaterials, but only minimal investment has been made on health research. We really need to increase research in this area.
Coal-fired power plants are another big hazard. When coal is burned, it releases mercury to the environment, which is deposited by rainfall into waterways, transformed into methylmercury and picked up by fish, where it becomes a human health hazard. Additionally the whole lifecycle of coal -- from mining, to transport, to combustion and on to the ultimate disposal of the coal ash -- poses a host of environmental hazards. These hazards are very carefully described by PSR’s board member, Dr. Alan Lockwood, in his forthcoming book, The Silent Epidemic.
PSR: What research do you think most urgently needs to be funded?
Landrigan: I think that the biggest research need in this area is for studies that examine the impacts on human health of chemical exposures in the earliest stages of life. It’s very important to keep the National Children’s Study focused on environmental exposures during pregnancy and early childhood.
PSR: What most gives you hope that the toxics movement is making or can make meaningful progress?
Landrigan: One very bright aspect is the fact that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in partnership with the EPA, has established a very strong network of research centers on children’s environmental health. These centers are making new discoveries every week on the effects of chemicals on human health. This is very important. Another bright spot is that we are recognizing the increasing importance of endocrine disruptors. Five years ago we knew almost nothing about endocrine disruptors; now there are tens of articles on the subject being published every month.
Third, the CDC with the support of the EPA has established a national network of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU’s) distributed across the country. These Centers diagnose and treat children who have suffered environmental exposures. They serve as places of referral and consultation for practicing physicians. They also are dedicated to educating pediatricians, family doctors, other health professionals, parents, and the public about environmental threats to children’s health.
The problem of toxic threats to children’s health is large and multi-faceted. But at the end of the day we need to be optimistic because toxic hazards are all potentially preventable and no group in our society is better positioned to write prescriptions for prevention than are we physicians.
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