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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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The Canary in the Gold Mine

By José T. Bravo

This essay is in response to: Explain how environmental justice concerns play out in your community, and how policy change could address exposure disparities.

As the Executive Director for the Just Transition Alliance (JTA), an environmental justice organization in San Diego, CA, I have had the opportunity to work and see the importance of chemical policy reform in California and in the United States for the last 20 years. JTA was founded in 1997 by environmental justice and labor organizations and became a 501(c) 3 organization in 2001. JTA works throughout the state and nation. The Just Transition Alliance serves people of color; low-income communities, especially those who live near polluting industries; and workers, particularly those who work in the energy, mining, and chemical sectors. Not only do we focus on contaminated sites that should be cleaned up and on the transition to clean production and sustainable economies, but we also focus on work that will ameliorate the lack of knowledge and the lack of choice that our communities have when dealing with the toxic chemicals in the community, the workplace, and in the home.

Having grown up as a child farmworker alongside my parents and family members, I have seen the effects of outdated and weak laws and regulations on individuals who work with pesticides in the fields. California is moving towards replacing Methyl Bromide with a new chemical called Methyl Iodide, a pesticide that is used specifically to cause cancer in laboratory rats. It has also been linked to late term miscarriages. Going to various demonstrations, presentations, and workshops in communities and universities, I have been approached by individuals wanting to know how to make changes in their lives and avoid exposing their children and family members to toxic chemicals. But how can I tell them to avoid toxic chemicals when our regulations allow for their exposure, and toxic chemicals can be found in the majority of the products that are available to them?

People of color and low-income community members have to live and survive under dire circumstances since they are disproportionately impacted by waste dumps, refineries, and manufacturing plants. They are also affected by the cumulative impact of a multitude of chemicals. In addition, selective enforcement and the lack of knowledge that communities of color and low income communities are living with keeps us trapped in an environment that is akin to the canary in the gold mine. We deserve the right to know in order to have the right to act, and we deserve to have a comprehensive chemical policy reform that considers cumulative impact, addresses hot spots, and that takes immediate action on the worst chemicals (“legacy chemicals”).

In recent years, rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, childhood cancer, infertility, and learning and developmental disabilities have significantly increased. Although many factors can lead to these serious and debilitating conditions, chemicals in the environment have been shown to play a significant role in all of them. In addition, cancer has been specifically connected to toxic chemicals.

Toxic chemicals pose the greatest health threat to people from communities of color in most if not all states. The federal law for assessing the safety of chemicals in commerce, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), is outdated, and this obsolete law is doing little to protect the public from toxic chemicals since it does not test chemicals before they are used in consumer products. Out of the 84,000 chemicals on the market today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested only 200 of them for their health effects and only five have been restricted for certain uses. This demonstrates that there are thousands of chemicals in use today that have never been assessed for safety – chemicals that disproportionately affect communities of color and low income communities.

The President’s Cancer Panel provided strong confirmation in 2010 that exposure to toxic chemicals is an important risk factor for cancer that is often overlooked. The Panel highlighted that TSCA needs to be reformed in Congress, commenting that the law is “the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of chemical contaminants.”

With communities of color and low income communities receiving the brunt of an ineffective regulation and selective enforcement, children, adults, and the elderly have to live in areas where cases of childhood cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, thyroid, liver, kidney, and breast cancer are not uncommon. It is crucial that we and our regulations assess the chemicals in our products that line the aisles of our stores. It is also crucial that we address “hot spots,” the places where industry is causing the greatest damage. Our nation needs comprehensive and cohesive reform that will protect human health from environmental contaminants and the preventable forms of cancer associated with toxic chemicals.

Rising rates of cancer and other chronic diseases, especially among the most vulnerable populations, means that our federal laws are failing to protect public health. Chemicals banned decades ago continue to show up in communities across the country as a result of building up over time in our bodies and in the food chain. We need a law that will protect us from harmful chemicals and keep our families safe and healthy. We need change. We need reform.

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