Real chemical reform, not industry-backed reform

Researchers from UC Berkeley recently found toxic flame retardants in 100 percent of dust samples taken from California preschools and day care centers. These flame retardants have been linked to hormone disruption and lowered IQ in children. 

This shouldn’t be shocking news - previous studies have commonly found these toxic chemicals in house dust. Flame retardants are everywhere - they have been put in most upholstered furniture over the last several decades as well as numerous other consumer products including electronics and textiles. 

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Fortunately, earlier this year California reversed a 1970 flammability standard which allowed the use of these toxic chemicals in the foam of upholstered furniture. This standard created a market for these chemicals throughout the U.S. The reversal of this rule will hopefully reduce the use of hazardous flame retardants in furniture and ultimately lower exposure.

But flame retardants are only one example of how vulnerable populations like developing children are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis in their home, school or play environments. Why is this? Why are chemicals which pose a health risk allowed to be put into our consumer products? Why are workers allowed to be exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplaces?

Because the current law which regulates chemicals in the U.S. is weak and ineffective. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976, has failed to protect us from hazardous chemicals like flame retardants, solvents or phthalates- found in everyday products such as plastics, cosmetics, and cleaning products.

TSCA needs to be updated so that it truly reduces exposure to toxic chemicals and improves safety for everyone, particularly pregnant women, children, workers and hot-spot communities. 

A House subcommittee is poised to vote on a TSCA reform proposal, the Chemicals in Commerce Act (CICA) this week. Unfortunately, CICA would do very little, if anything, to protect public health.

CICA fails to protect vulnerable populations from exposures to toxic chemicals and ignores the National Academy of Sciences recommendations for how chemical safety should be assessed. Under CICA, EPA would not be able to impose health-protective restrictions on chemicals that fail a safety review. State authority would be superseded, curtailing stronger state chemical policy, now and in the future. The public’s right to know what toxic chemicals are contained in their products would also be completely ignored. In short, CICA does not require that chemicals be shown safe for human health. These are some of the more egregious problems with the current reform vehicles. 

From a health professional’s perspective CICA would threaten provider-patient relationships by restricting information flow and “gagging” concerned healthcare providers. Chemical companies would be allowed to withhold critical information on products’ chemical identity hampering diagnosis and treatment. The proposal also “gags” healthcare providers from sharing information about toxic chemical exposures with anyone not involved in treating the patient. 

As a mother of two young children chemical policy is personal. But, to replace one failed law with an equally flawed regulatory system is unconscionable and puts our most vulnerable at-risk. The current reform proposal serves no one except the chemical industry.

What we need is real chemical reform that protects public health. What is before Congress is reform that protects the chemical industry. As a public health advocate and parent I won’t settle for these hollow measures. Our congressional leaders shouldn’t either.

Attar is Toxics Program manager at Physicians for Social Responsibility.