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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Hopes (and Some Frustration) for Chemicals Policy Reform

Posted on May 21, 2012

By Maye Thompson, RN, PhD

When I speak to the public about environmental toxics, I often say that the American Chemistry Council and I agree on two things. One, we need more science; two, chemicals policy is most logically made at the federal level.

In regard to the science, much of the science “on the bench” right now continues to raise concerns about the safety of chemicals we are exposed to every day. I anticipate that scientists will continue to provide us with research revealing that endocrine disruptors affecting the androgen-estrogen axis will also affect the thyroid and insulin/digestive hormone systems. I expect that we will also learn more about how thyroid disruptors affect neurodevelopment in utero.

I also see trends in the science on exposure to heavy metals. Lead and mercury will be joined by cadmium and manganese as metals to which the public is exposed at harmful levels. This highlights the findings, so well laid out by Jill Stein in her monograph Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, about the cumulative effects of exposure to chemicals such as lead that we tend to think of as pediatric issues but that have effects throughout the lifespan.

As for chemicals policy, despite wanting and working for reform on the federal level, many of us are frustrated by the extent of the legislative logjam in Washington.  It does not seem to be easing, and the medium-term prospects for reform seem dim. We will need to continue to work at the state and local levels for tighter regulations or bans on various chemicals. One big problem with this chemical-by-chemical approach is that it leads to questionable substitutions, such as replacing bisphenol A with bisphenol S. While there is little known about bisphenol S, it is estrogenic and appears likely to leach into food and plastic.  Similarly, the ban on lead in toys resulted in manufacturers using cadmium instead. It seems a little like the Cold War arms race, to continue to raise concerns about a single chemical or a class of chemicals, when industry is so adept at finding little-known, dubious or even dangerous substitutes.

Many of us in the United States, when asked about the regulatory future, look at what the European Union is up to.   Three broad topics are expected to be the focus of the European Union’s seventh Environment Action Program, scheduled for release in November of this year:  the effects of exposure to mixtures of chemicals, endocrine disruptors; and nanosubstances.  In all three areas, European scientists have pointed the way for advances that would be highly valuable here in the U.S.

With regard to chemical mixtures, the Europeans have made progress assessing the impacts of mixtures of chemicals that act through the same physiological mechanism, producing dose additivity. Investigating mixtures with different metabolic and physiological pathways, to assess synergy, remains difficult. An EU-contracted study on chemical mixtures was completed in December 2009, and a strategy document is due at the end of this month.  More research is needed, but money will be difficult to find during the European debt crisis, which shows little sign of abating. 

As for endocrine disruptors, the European Union proposes making them a regulatory class. Regulating endocrine disruptors as a class would set a wonderful precedent for TSCA reform in this country, which currently regulates chemicals of concern as having carcinogenic or noncarcinogenic effects.

Nanosubstances have been another area of action in the EU.  Currently, nanosubstances are regulated similarly to the same substance at standard scale. The European Parliament is on record that nanosubstances should be more tightly regulated, because they present more risks than the same substances do at standard scale. Recently two policies were published that require information on the exposure effects of nanomaterials in aquatic and terrestrial organisms.  I look forward to comparable progress in this country.

Lastly, I think we health care professionals working at the clinical level need to do a better job integrating environmental health into our daily practices. We should be providing our patients and their families with anticipatory guidance on safer products, safer foods, and avoiding toxicants in their communties. We should be working to “green” our own workplaces and institutions, promoting recycling, energy efficiency, local and sustainable foods, and life cycle analyses of environmental costs and alternatives to the medical supplies and equipment we need to provide care.

And we can act as role models, advocating before policy makers for better air and water, greener food and transportation systems, energy conservation and low or no-carbon fuels, and environmental quality in our communities. All these are steps we can take to build awareness and advocacy for a greener, more toxics-free environment.

In sum, the take-away message for our toxics reform movement is to keep on keeping on, knowing that the science as it lurches forward will likely continue to give us the information we need to argue for better policy. We also need to keep on animating the public to push for change. It’s not a dramatic prospect, but it’s work that we certainly know how to do and can continue to do more and better.


Natalie Cox said ..

May 22, 2012
Liberty Goodwin said ..

These sound like some reasonable ideas - but fail to take into account that it is not merely the "log-jam" in Washington that impedes progress. In fact, both parties and key government agencies are so under the control of chemical and other corporate interests that I don't see much hope for any progress at the federal level of government. Instead, my small organization, Toxics Information Project (TIP), is focused on really educating people on the truth about what is in their products and lives, and on healthier alternatives. If they don't buy the plastic baby bottles, for example, it won't matter which endocrine-disrupting plasticizer is being used.

May 21, 2012

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