We know very little to nothing about the thousands of other chemicals our children are exposed to every day. Lead poisoning in the water in Flint, Michigan is just the beginning.
Our government enacted the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate existing chemicals and the introduction of new chemicals.
So why 40 years after TSCA, do we know so little?
At the time TSCA was enacted all 62,000 chemicals currently on the market in the United States were “grandfathered” in and allowed to remain on the market without having their toxic impacts assessed. Since then, another 22,000 chemicals have been added to the TSCA chemical inventory and permitted for use in the U.S. The EPA has only required testing of 200 chemicals.
The fact is we have toxicity data on less than 1 percent of all the chemicals permitted for use in consumer products in the United States.
And there is room for gaming the system.
Take bisphenol A (BPA) a chemical commonly used in plastics, like our water bottles. This chemical is thought to mimic hormones in our body and disrupt the normal functioning of our endocrine system, which could result in effects on children’s development.
After these findings were publicized we saw the aisles of stores filled with BPA-free water bottles and other products for our children. Yet BPA could have been removed and then replaced with one of the other chemicals on the current TSCA list that has not been evaluated for human safety and may actually be more toxic.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of regrettable rather than informed chemical substitutions in consumer products.
In the case of BPA, it was commonly replaced with bisphenol S or F, which are as hormonally active as BPA, and have the same endocrine-disrupting effects.
There could be change soon.
In December, the Senate approved legislation to amend the TSCA reform bill approved by the House of Representatives back in June.
The proposed law requires EPA to evaluate chemicals for their safety at a “reasonable pace,” which has been proposed as 10 chemicals per year. At this rate it would only take us 20 years to double the number of chemicals that we have safety evaluations on, and over 8,000 years to complete the current TSCA list.
Recognizing this problem, some of the most progressive laws that protect our children from hazardous chemicals occur at the state level. States like Maine, California, and Washington have proactively and successfully passed laws that limit the use of certain flame retardants and chemicals like BPA in children’s products.
These laws have impacted all of us by making companies come up with safer alternatives for children in all states. However, the current TSCA reform bill based by the Senate would prohibit states from passing legislation concerning chemicals on EPA’s priority list while they undergo federal EPA review. These reviews could take years, and greatly limit the ability of states to continue to take a more precautionary approach.
For example, there are efforts currently underway in California to reduce the use of methylene chloride, a known human carcinogen, which the EPA has been evaluating for toxicity and health risks for over 30 years. The current draft of the law would prohibit California from passing any legislation until EPA finished that review.
Given the enormity of the problem, researchers at EPA and elsewhere are developing cutting-edge methods to rapidly screen chemicals for their toxicity and prioritize future assessments. Once they are better developed and vetted, these methods have great potential to increase the “reasonable pace” beyond 10 chemicals per year.
However, until the laws are reformed and we increase our technological capacity to obtain toxicity data on these thousands of chemicals, the burden is going to fall on us, the consumer, to change things. We, collectively, have the most power in pushing companies towards safer chemical alternatives.
Here is what you can do:
• Become more informed about the safety and evaluation of products you use in your home. Here are some of my favorite databases: Greener Choices, Skin Deep, and EPA’s Safer Choice.. Watch out for those labeled “non-toxic.” This label has no legal definition and can be used on any product that has not been proven to be toxic, even if it that is because it has never been evaluated.
• Buy products and support companies and suppliers that are committed to reducing our exposure to known toxins. For example, buy from furniture companies that do not use toxic flame retardants. Look beyond coffee and chocolate for fair trade products that are pesticide free, such as flowers or cotton clothes. Keep up to date on retailers that are committed to making change.
Just because we are exposed to a chemical does not mean that it is necessarily bad for our health. Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, explained this as: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”
In essence, everything has a dose which if exceeded can adversely affect your health. For example, medicines and vitamins are examples of chemicals that at a low dose can improve our health, yet at high dose can harm our health.
Not everyone has enough disposable income to make these choices. Those who can afford to make these changes need to use our collective power to help all of our families and demand safer products.
Beamer is a mother and an associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Chemical & Environmental Engineering at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.