Chemical Safety. Someone Should Care a Whole Awful Lot.
It’s March 2001 and a British man steps out of a blue police box and says that I will someday be grateful for the acute myelogenous leukemia (Agent Orange- related cancer) that has just killed my father. He promises that the next half-dozen years my mother and I will spend spinning in the revolving door of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) will benefit me later. He whispers that I need to pay attention to the draft Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) legislation in 2013.
If only, right? Almost 13 years and two children after my father’s death, I can appreciate how much that past informed the present. His death fueled that first tank of moral outrage. But it was the 7 years of cycling Request/Response/Wait with the VA, the writing and copying of a forest-worth of appeals, and the knowledge gained from working in the biostatistics department of a local CRO that kept the tank full.
In my efforts to understand (and convince the VA) of the why of his cancer, I added new words to my personal dictionary: benzene, 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4,5-T), which was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8- TCDD), and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2-4-D).
From 2002 to 2004 the thousands of hours spent reading scientific articles full of words necessitating both conventional and medical dictionaries made three facts clear:
- chemicals are not required to undergo any safety testing before being sent out into the populace,
- the average human has far more exposure to toxic chemicals than they realize, and
- regular exposure to toxic chemicals is not healthy.
My family is safe because I buy organic foods. None of this applies to me.
Both of my children have food allergies; I can read a label to avoid the eggs that will send one of them to the ER. As a consumer I can (and do) choose to avoid foods with food dye, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
I can choose to purchase organic diced tomatoes to avoid eating the pesticides, completely ignorant of the fact that no law that regulates what’s in the actual can.
This is why CSIA applies to all of us– even the eaters of organic foods–irrespective of race, political leaning, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or geography. We are equal in our inability to opt out of toxic chemical exposure.
Those chemicals hang out next to you on the couch, slap you a high-five every time you take a receipt, and dance with your dust bunnies.
Chemicals–meh. I don’t drink jet fuel, and I don’t work in manufacturing.
Of course you aren’t drinking jet fuel. Yet scientists are finding persistent chemicals in the breast milk of average American women. Since you didn’t brew a k-cup of chemicals this morning, and you don’t work in chemical manufacturing, how do you suppose those chemicals got into your body?
Do you sit on a couch with foam cushions? Sleep on a flame-retardant mattress? Buy lunchboxes and bookbags for your children? Do you eat canned soup? Drink water from a contaminated well? Drink any water at all?
Now is a good time for me to point out that being exposed to Chemical X does not mean you will die from Disease yy. No one factor determines whether an individual will develop cancer, even if a specific exposure explains a high proportion of the occurrence of a specific cancer.
Why We Should All Care a Whole Awful Lot
I share a birth year, 1976, with the Toxic Substance Control Act– TSCA (toss-ka), the law written to regulate the chemical industry. TSCA passed– and with it an automatic exemption for the 60,000 chemicals already on the market. Since 1976, an additional 24,000 chemicals have come to market. About 15% of the 24,000 new chemical submissions included any health-and-safety data.
Put another way: for 37 years Americans have invited about 83,800 untested chemicals into their homes, gardens, clothes, dishes, shampoo, soap, detergents, and mattresses. About 200 chemicals in the past 37 years have had pre-market safety testing.
In an astonishingly abrupt difference, should I find myself diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I cannot take a pharmaceutical drug without it first having passed trials for both safety and efficacy. I can go online and read the data from the clinical trials of an approved drug. I can (and have) read thousands of pages listing adverse side effects of investigational study drugs. Extensive examination of data is required before a drug can be sent to market and, should post-market safety concerns develop, the FDA can pull the drug.
I’m concerned that similar requirements haven’t been established for the chemicals that stain every surface of a modern America household. I can’t flip over my couch cushion and see a listing of the chemicals used to make it flame retardant. I can’t choose. As a parent and a consumer, that’s not okay.
I gave birth to my first son in 2006. During an infant safety class, the nurse looked out at the sea of mounded bellies, protected by elastic-waist pants and folded hands, and warned us that using soap would wash the flame retardant off baby’s clothes.
I asked her what it was about babies that made them more flammable, thus requiring flame retardant clothing. Her answer was that “newborns, being immobile, can’t move themselves away from a fire.” After nights of being woken by an indignantly wet, screaming newborn I felt confident that, should he find himself suddenly on fire, we’d be well-informed. No longer concerned about his increased risk of spontaneously bursting into flame, we eliminated treated pajamas.
Then, as I nursed 3 month old Zach, I read an article that mentioned how disposable baby diapers contain dioxin—an unavoidable byproduct of the paper bleaching process. I thought we had been pathologically cautious– testing the paint and pipes for lead in our 1969 home, choosing low-VOC paints, unscented baby shampoo and lotions, vaccinating, breastfeeding—only to find out that we had been laying dioxin next to his bare baby skin.
We switched to cloth diapers.
Zach spent a year playing with/chewing on what would later become known as Thomas the Toxic-Lead-Paint Engine. 2007, the year of massive toy recalls for lead paint (and other) violations, cemented my child’s natural love of cardboard boxes; it was difficult for me not to see each plastic toy as the next toxin-bearing Trojan Horse.
Why I’m grateful for cancer–
Wait- did you just say you were grateful for cancer?
Yes, I did. My 18 year old father’s firebase experienced heavy deforestation from Agent Orange (AO) giving multiple AO-related diseases a chance at his mortality. If it was going to be something, I’m grateful it was AML. You see, my father’s death had already informed me of the chemicals that lurked– largely unregulated– in every corner of modern life. But my peer group at the time– young adults whose parents had not been military– were unaffected, and therefore unimpressed, by the irresponsible behavior of the chemical industry.
I cheered over the public outcry against Bisphenol-A (BPA)—and, for a minute, felt pride over the chemical manufacturing industry’s response. Victorious fist-bumps spread as baby bottles started to show up with BPA-FREE labels.
Unfortunately, the chemical manufacturing industry replaced the BPA with Bisphenol-S (BPS), which is, at best, comparably bad.
In their short lifetime—and despite my rigorous efforts to the contrary—both of my children likely walk around as unwilling hosts to multiple toxic chemicals. The repeating statement in these biomonitoring chemical summaries (even for those chemicals identified as probable carcinogens) is that: “Human health effects from [INSERT CHEMICAL] at low environmental doses or at biomonitored levels from low environmental exposures are unknown.”
That’s true—we don’t know the human health effects of long-term exposure to low level chemicals, because safety tests are not required of new chemicals, and for the past 37 years the only data available have been those voluntarily given by the industry writing the rules intended to regulate it.
No, I’m not going to go all Jenny-McCarthy and say that I know for certain that living with low levels of multiple chemicals deemed as “possible” and “probable” human carcinogens causes negative health outcomes. It’s hard enough to identify association, let alone causation. What I do know for a fact is that children have more years of future life than adults; more years for their developing bodies to accumulate the byproducts of almost 80,000 untested chemicals. I also know exposure measured for a 37 year old is different from that measured for a 7 year old, a 3 year old, a 2 month old, and a fetus. I know that measuring the chemicals causing early puberty will not yield accurate results for an adult well beyond puberty.
I know that children are at a current—and future—risk for unknown health effects simply because we do not require safety testing.
Now I’m terrified of my couch and grocery receipts, and I think I saw a tumor growing on my foot. What is my government doing about this?
Which leads us to 2013 and the introduction of the “bipartisan effort to update embarrassingly outdated legislation”, aka the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA). Bipartisan cooperation, being the shiny snowflake twinkling against the Unicorn’s horn it is these days, is both appreciated and even encouraged by the voting public. Notwithstanding, I do NOT intend to encourage the passage of tepid, ineffective legislation for the sake of bipartisanship cooperation.
As it’s written—and yes, I read each overly comma’ed and semi-colon’ed paragraph— the first draft of the CSIA scores big for The Bill Most Likely to Define Governmental Ambiguity. The current version of CSIA sacrifices the opportunity to protect health and environment in favor of protecting profit. CSIA forfeits my freedom as a consumer to make informed choices.
CSIA prevents States from passing chemical safety regulations, limiting the rights of individual states in favor of a large federal government. Sorry Californina voters, DC will be taking over now. This ceding of regulatory control to the federal government is a complete dissension from S. 1482, a bill written recognizing the primacy of States for setting chemical regulations with regard to hydraulic fracturing. Fascinating, really.
CSIA legislation requires the EPA assess exposure in vulnerable subpopulations (such as children and at-risk workers) for the safety assessments. It fails to define what should be done to protect a subpopulation should they be found to be at an increased risk. This is similar to acknowledging that children are a greater risk for lead-exposure related illness and then doing nothing about lead.
CSIA creates multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape for the EPA with the use of phrases like “time to time” (my favorite), “timely”, and “within a reasonable time” as the definition for key deadlines and timelines.
CSIA requires that a chemical product be defined as either high or low risk. If the EPA cannot prove a chemical to be high risk, then that chemical is automatically categorized as low risk. I don’t consider unstudied to be the same as low risk.
This is not an example of a socialist agenda against free enterprise. A fair number of chemicals are vitally important to the continuation of humans world-wide. I don’t want to write legislation that cripples the innovation of the chemical industry. But I do want legislation written that stops toxic chemicals from slithering all over children.
I want legislation that promotes public and environmental health, and protects consumer freedom. We need legislation that puts health over profit. Contact the members of the Environment and Public Works Committee and tell them that you want them to keep working.
We all have the right to know that we’re not accidentally poisoning our families with the products purchased for our homes.
This post originally appeared on the blog Scattermom.