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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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Stronger Chemical Regulations Are Needed to Prevent Prenatal Exposures

By Katie Huffling, RN MS CNM

This essay is in response to: How is the developing fetus vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures, and how can our regulatory system more effectively protect our health in the prenatal period?

As a nurse-midwife, I work with moms and families to have the healthiest pregnancy possible. I talk with them about diet, exercise, weight gain, and, over the past few years, I have also started talking with them about all of the different products they use and the chemicals that may be found in these products.

There is a growing body of research that shows how fetal exposures to chemicals found in everyday products may be implicated in the rising rates of health problems seen in children and adults such as diabetes, infertility, obesity, neurodevelopment disorders, and cancer. Unfortunately our current regulatory system is not working to protect us, nor the most vulnerable among us – including the growing fetus -- from exposures to these chemicals.

One class of chemicals that has seen increased interest over the past ten years is endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Low-level exposures to EDCs during critical times of fetal growth may interfere with the hormone signaling that is vital to normal growth and development and gene functioning. Research is now showing that exposures to these chemicals can cause changes in how genes work, impacting which genes are turned on and off and when, increasing that child’s risk for chronic diseases such as obesity.

Our current federal chemical regulatory system is failing to protect babies from prenatal exposures both because of how chemicals are regulated in the marketplace and how safety testing is performed.

In the United States, the main law that regulates chemicals used in everyday products is the Toxic Substances Control Act.  When this law was passed in 1976, the 60,000 chemicals that were already on the market were allowed to stay on the market without any health and safety testing. There are now over 87,000 chemicals on the market and these have not been fully assessed for their impacts on human health. Currently, manufacturers do not have to show that their chemicals are safe before they are placed on the market. Instead, the government must prove that a chemical is harmful in order for it to be taken off the market.

The safety testing that is being performed at agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not been keeping up with the new science on low-dose EDC exposures. The EPA now has an Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program that will evaluate those chemicals that have the highest likelihood of being EDCs, but this program has been slow to begin testing and the EPA is not currently taking into account low-dose exposures when they are developing their chemical risk assessments.

In order to protect the growing fetus from harmful chemical exposures, our current chemical regulatory system needs an overhaul. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenburg of New Jersey, will address many of the issues with the current regulations and require safety testing before chemicals are placed on the market. It will give the EPA the ability to take the highest risk chemicals off the market and encourage chemical manufacturers to produce safer products. The EPA also needs to accelerate the testing in the Endocrine Disruptor Screening program and incorporating the findings into their risk assessments.

Until the current regulations protect babies from prenatal toxic chemical exposures, nurse-midwives, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers need to be educating their clients about the risks associated with chemicals found in everyday products and ways to decrease their exposures. We also need to advocate for the regulatory changes that will protect women and infants from harmful chemicals that could have life-long health implications.

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