July 18, 2016
On June 22, President Obama signed into law a massive overhaul of the federal rules for regulating toxic chemicals, implementing a plan to test the safety of 64,000 chemicals currently on the market.
But critics have blasted the bill as a half-measure that moves so slowly as to be practically useless, and it gives a free pass to many of the most dangerous chemicals.
The chemical safety system in this country is so broken that normally apolitical doctors’ organizations are now openly calling for urgent action.
“Before we can prescribe medicine, we have to prove it’s safe,” said Dr. Jeanne Conry, a former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). “So how come with the chemical industry, we assume everything is safe and have to prove there’s harm?”
Pesticides get free pass
The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act is considered the first major update to U.S. environmental laws in 20 years, and is also the first major update of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The original law has been largely condemned for lacking teeth: Of the 62,000 chemicals on the market in 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban just five.
The Lautenberg Act allows the EPA to test the safety of chemicals now on the market, and sets a timeline for doing so. It also gives the agency the authority to ban certain substances, such as asbestos, and limits the secrecy around certain proprietary toxic chemicals to 10 years.
But, though the law calls for testing of about 64,000 chemicals, it only requires the testing of 20 at a time – a pace so slow as to be meaningless, critics say. Additionally, the new powers given to the EPA under the act do not apply to pesticides.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Lautenberg Act is that it does not change the fundamental problem with chemical regulation in the United States: that chemicals are presumed safe until proven dangerous. There is no requirement that any safety testing be performed on a chemical before it is introduced into consumer or industrial products.
Epidemic of brain damage
Just days after the signing of the Lautenberg Act, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a consensus statement by a wide coalition of doctors, scientists and health advocates, including normally apolitical groups such as ACOG. The statement called for a massive overhaul in toxics regulation in the United States, citing a growing epidemic of neurodevelopmental disorders in children.
“We as a society should be able to take protective action when scientific evidence indicates a chemical is of concern, and not wait for unequivocal proof that a chemical is causing harm to our children,” the statement reads.
The consensus statement emerged from an effort known as Project Tendr (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks), and is just one of many such articles slated to be published in top pediatrics, endocrinology, nursing and epidemiology journals in the coming months.
Rates of developmental disabilities are rising faster than can be explained by changes in diagnostic criteria. Between 1996 and 2008, the percentage of children with such disabilities rose from 12.8 to 15 percent.
The Project Tendr statement singles out a variety of toxic chemicals implicated in neurological damage that the government has not adequately acted to remove from the environment. These include organophosphate pesticides, lead in old pipes, flame retardants in household items and clothing, endocrine-disrupting phthalates in plastics and cosmetics and certain air pollutants related to fuel combustion.
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