Reforming chemical law means saving lives

The job before Congress is immense: Fixing the 37-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) will mean having the courage to meaningfully regulate an industry that has enjoyed little oversight. Under the current law, chemical manufacturers have close to no responsibility to prove chemicals are safe before being used in commerce, and the government has almost no authority to ban hazardous chemicals. Under TSCA it’s perfectly legal to use formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, asbestos and other known or suspected carcinogens to make items we use every day, including household cleaners, furniture and plastics.

The price we’re paying for this toxic chemical free-for-all is exorbitantly high. Daily exposures to many of the 84,000 chemicals that fall under TSCA have been linked to diseases plaguing our lives and our health care system. Breast cancer rates are 40 percent higher today than when TSCA passed in the 1970s, meaning that today an astonishing 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.  A growing body of scientific evidence points to one of the major culprits: unsafe chemical exposures.

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Indeed, there have been major scientific advances since TSCA passed. Scientists have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of how the timing and dose of chemical exposure are of particular importance. Early-life exposures, even at levels that might not seriously impact adults, can have disastrous effects on long-term health, and the consequences may not be fully realized until years or even decades later. And even low doses of chemicals can be harmful; no longer is the old principle that “the dose makes the poison” necessarily applicable. Some chemicals, particularly those that mimic natural hormones and disrupt our endocrine system, can have a more profound impact at parts per billion, or even parts per trillion.

We’ve also learned that certain populations are more vulnerable to chemical exposures. For example:



·      The woman automotive factory worker who is exposed to toxic chemicals from heated plastics every day and has a five times higher risk of breast cancer.

·      The pregnant woman who each time she sits on her couch unwittingly exposes herself to toxic flame retardants; children exposed in the womb can have lower IQs and attention problems.

·      Young girls who are starting puberty earlier and earlier and, as a result, are now at a higher risk for developing breast cancer later in life.



As Congress considers TSCA reform, it must take into account this new scientific paradigm. It must go beyond the current version of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act by creating a chemicals-management system based on public health principles that protect all of us—especially the most vulnerable—from toxic chemicals at all stages of our lives.

Fixing our chemical law is not about scoring political points or debating abstract theories. It’s about saving lives. By making public health protections a centerpiece of chemical reform, Congress has the power to help all of us live healthier lives and to change the course of cancer and other diseases for future generations.

Nudelman is the director of Policy and Program at the Breast Cancer Fund.