Stricter rules urged on toxic chemicals

Report links exposure to chronic illnesses, cancers

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Americans are exposed to thousands of chemicals that are potentially harmful to their health, according to a broad coalition of labor, health, and environmental organizations calling for tougher federal toxics regulation.

The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition seeks to rally support for soon-to-be introduced legislation that would reform the 34-year-old federal Toxic Substances Control Act. The coalition yesterday released a report highlighting scientific studies that link toxic chemical exposure to the rise of chronic diseases, including breast cancer and childhood cancers, learning and developmental disorders, reproductive problems, Parkinson's disease and asthma.

The report said that adoption of new health-based regulations to mandate chemical testing and ensure chemical safety would easily reduce the incidence of such chronic diseases by one-tenth of 1 percent and reduce direct health care costs by $5 billion a year in the U.S. and almost $200 million in Pennsylvania.

"A lot of diseases are linked in part to the toxic chemicals that saturate our everyday lives," said Maureen Swanson, national coordinator of the Healthy Children Project and the Pittsburgh-based Learning Disabilities Association of America, said at a news conference in United Steelworkers headquarters Downtown. "With an updated toxic chemical law we could all be healthier and wealthier."

She said there's ample science showing that levels of chemical exposure once thought safe can have harmful health effects.

Dr. Maryann Donovan, associate director of research services for the University of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology, said that 75 percent of cancers may be linked to "environment," broadly defined to include many factors such as smoking, radiation, air and water pollution and other sources of chemical exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Since the federal Toxic Substances Control Act became law in 1976, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on just 200 of the 83,000 chemicals in common use and issued regulations for only five, the coalition said. And 60,000 chemicals received "grandfathered" approval without undergoing any government testing.

Michael Wright, director of the Steelworkers' Department of Health, Safety & Environment, said the federal toxic chemical law is the weakest environmental regulation ever enacted. He called on Pennsylvania's senators and congressmen to support a tougher law, and said new advances in environmentally benign "green chemistry" can help create thousands of good jobs.

"The industry has to make safe chemicals in a safe manner," Mr. Wright said. "We don't want to make poison, we want to make progress."

New toxic chemical legislation strengthening the chemical testing requirements is scheduled for introduction in February by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. Mr. Wright and Ms. Swanson testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection last February at a hearing held by Rep. Rush on the need for revisions to the federal toxics law.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a member of that subcommittee, said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. that public health factors are extremely important and the toxics act should be updated to meet current scientific standards.

"The chemical industry and those concerned with public health ought to be sitting down and figuring out how to do this in the best and most efficient way," said Rep. Murphy, a psychologist and associate adjunct professor at Pitt's Department of Pediatrics, and co-chair of the Congressional Doctors Caucus.

"Anything around human use will require stricter standards than chemicals that are not supposed to be used in that way," he said. "Standards that fit the use, chemical composition and risk are all part of that."

Tiffany Harrington, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association representing more than 150 companies, said it recognizes the public lacks confidence in the way chemicals are regulated in the U.S. She said that the EPA needs additional resources to do that job properly.

Ms. Harrington released a statement from the Council saying it welcomes the call to update regulations but urged federal action instead of a state-by-state approach that it said could put industry jobs at risk.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 27, 2010) The National Cancer Institute estimates that "environment," broadly defined to include many factors such as smoking, radiation, air and water pollution and other sources of chemical exposure, may be responsible for up to 75 percent of cancer risk. This article as originally published on Jan. 22, 2010 attributed an inaccurate statement that 75 percent of cancers are linked to chemical exposures in the environment to the institute and Dr. Maryann Donovan, associate director of research services for the University of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology.

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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