March 12, 2012

Maine Voices: Time to take more steps to shield consumers from toxic chemicals

Common-sense controls on chemicals used in everyday products merit Maine senators' support.

By DR. TAMAS PEREDY

PORTLAND - As the only practicing medical toxicologist in the state, I am well aware of the real hazards that Maine children and adults face from toxic chemicals. Every day, I see patients who have been exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals in their homes, workplaces and shared public places.

Unfortunately, the federal law that is supposed to regulate chemicals in everyday products is broken and needs to be updated. I am urging Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to support the meaningful improvements put forth in the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847).

Industrial chemicals are widely used in everyday products like furniture, food packaging, personal care products and toys. These chemicals can and often do leach out and enter our bodies, putting our health at risk.

For example, bisphenol-A, a plastic hardener commonly used in baby bottles and canned food lining, is an endocrine disruptor and can cause neurological damage, especially in young children. A 2011 study found BPA in the bodies of 96 percent of pregnant women.

Phthalates, a plastic softener commonly found in air fresheners and plastic school binders, has been linked to birth defects and is found in the bodies of 99 percent of pregnant women.

I recently attended a national toxicology conference in Washington, D.C. One of the scientific abstracts presented was about the toxicological health of adoptees from foreign countries.

It was shocking to see the percentage of babies who had developmental abnormalities because of exposures to heavy metals and other materials. More shocking was that this was a representative sampling of the entire population's exposure levels. For example, nearly 30 percent of India's children have elevated lead levels.

Testing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found more than 212 industrial chemicals in the bodies of most Americans, including at least six known carcinogens and dozens that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other adverse health effects.

As a medical professional, I rely on adequate safety testing and chemical data to understand the risk that these chemicals pose to public health. As a consumer, I rely on manufacturers to both adequately test the chemicals in their products and to label their products accordingly.

Yet in the last 35 years, only 200 of the 80,000 chemicals currently used in commerce have been tested for their threat to human health and the environment. The vast majority of chemicals on the market today remain untested!

Why, you ask? The answer is that America's federal chemical safety law, the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, is badly broken.

The Toxic Substance Control Act provides virtually no oversight over large chemical manufacturers, who may prioritize profit over public and environmental health. This law is completely ineffective in requiring chemicals to be tested for health risks before they are used in consumer products.

The chemical industry will behave as well as regulations require. The Safe Chemicals Act would ensure that chemical manufacturers provide minimum test data for all the chemicals they produce. This would provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the information it needs to prioritize chemicals based on risk, while ensuring that all chemicals are reviewed for safety.

The EPA can then focus its resources on the chemicals most likely to cause harm, expedite action to reduce risk from chemicals of highest concern, require more testing as needed, and create a database for consumers and businesses to access reliable chemical information.

Fixing our broken federal chemical safety system will improve health, reduce disease, help lower skyrocketing health care costs and stimulate the economy through research and innovation of safer alternatives.

The Safe Chemicals Act will cut health care costs in Maine by taking a precautionary rather than a reactionary approach to toxic chemical exposure. The bill is consistent with principles for Toxic Substance Control Act reform issued by the Obama administration, the American Chemistry Council and the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.

In response to increased global chemical production and use, and our growing knowledge about how chemicals can harm human health and the environment, we need to overhaul our federal chemical policy by passing the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. I believe Sens. Snowe and Collins should co-sponsor and support this important public health legislation.

Dr. Tamas "Tom" Peredy is medical director of the Northern New England Poison Center, president of Medical Toxicologists of Maine, and a Maine Medical Center emergency physician.

 

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