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PSR Supports Newly Introduced Safe Chemicals Act, Seeks Improvement before Enactment

April 21, 2010

Physicians for Social Responsibility supports the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010,” introduced last week by Senator Lautenberg and Congressmen Waxman and Rush. The long-awaited, landmark legislation would overhaul the way the federal government protects the public from toxic chemicals.

“For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has been regulating chemicals with blinders on, because it doesn’t have the relevant health information,” said Peter Wilk, MD, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Americans are being exposed to chemicals that affect immune function, endocrine function, and have other unknown health effects. At the same time, we are seeing increased incidence of chronic diseases. We need a health-based approach to chemical regulation, and we are optimistic that the Safe Chemicals Act can fill this urgent need.”

Representatives Waxman and Rush have announced an aggressive schedule in the House of Representatives to complete committee action by mid-summer.

Positive aspects of the Safe Chemicals Act include essential reforms that would substantially improve public health protections, such as: 

  • Requiring chemical companies to develop and make publicly available basic health and safety information for all chemicals.
  • Requiring chemicals to meet a safety standard that protects vulnerable sub-populations, including pregnant women and children.
  • A new program to identify communities that are “hot spots” for toxic chemicals and to take action to reduce exposures.
  • Expediting safety determinations and actions to restrict some of the most notorious chemicals, like formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and flame retardants.

PSR is a member of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a broad coalition of more than 200 public health and environmental organizations. While supporting the legislation, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition calls for improvements in three critical areas. As currently drafted, the legislation would: 

  • Allow hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products for many years without first requiring them to be shown to be safe.
  • Not provide clear authority for EPA to immediately restrict production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, even persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals, which already have been extensively studied and are restricted by governments around the world.
  • Would not require EPA to adopt the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to incorporate the best and latest science when determining the safety of chemicals, although the Senate bill does call on EPA to consider those recommendations.

To ensure that this bill delivers on its promise to implement a safety system that truly protects all Americans, it must rectify these issues before enactment.

There is already widespread evidence that average Americans carry a heavy burden of chemicals in their bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Biomonitoring Project has found that synthetic chemicals linked to health problems are present in every American. PSR released a report in October, 2009, documenting the presence of industrial chemicals in the bodies of doctors and nurses across the country. “We know that healthcare professionals, workers, children -- indeed, all Americans -- are routinely exposed to industrial chemicals,” said Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD MSN RN, director of Environment and Health Programs at PSR, and co- principal investigator and a co-author of that report. “We need a regulatory system that can protect all Americans from these potentially dangerous substances. We think the Safe Chemicals Act is a step in the right direction, but requires critical strengthening.”

The Safe Chemicals Act would amend the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).  The current TSCA law is widely acknowledged to be ineffective.  TSCA “grandfathered in” 62,000 chemicals at the time it passed without requiring any testing or demonstration of safety.  In the ensuing three decades under TSCA, EPA has required testing for only a few hundred of those chemicals, and has only partially restricted five.  Meanwhile, a growing body of science has documented widespread human exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products, and has linked those exposures to the rising incidence of a number of serious chronic diseases and disorders, including reduced fertility, learning disabilities, breast and prostate cancer, and certain childhood cancers.

Environmental justice groups applauded the provisions in the Safe Chemicals Act mandating EPA to develop action plans to reduce the disproportionately high exposures to toxic chemicals in some communities.

“There are many communities, especially communities of color, tribal lands, and low-income communities, where people are dying at extraordinary rates because of toxic chemical exposure.  This bill, for the first time, would give EPA authority to identify these communities and protect them from major sources of toxic chemicals,” said Mark Mitchell, MD, President of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.

Related PSR web pages:
Hazardous Chemicals in Healthcare: a Snapshot of Chemicals in Doctors and Nurses
The Need for Chemical Reform in the United States

Molly Rauch

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is a non-profit advocacy organization that is the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop, and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment. With over 50,000 health professional and concerned citizen members and activists, 31 PSR chapters, and over 60 Student PSR chapters at medical and public health schools, PSR forms a unique nationwide network committed to a safe and healthy world.

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