While we wait for introduction of federal legislation to reform the country's law regulating toxic chemicals (still expected very soon), a number of states have been taking action to protect children and others from exposure to harmful substances in products.
This week I had the opportunity to testify before the Vermont state legislature in support of a bill that would begin the process of getting toxic chemicals out of children's products sold in Vermont (pdf). Modeled in part after a landmark 2008 Maine law, the Vermont legislation would create a list of Chemicals of High Concern that have already been identified by credible governmental entities as causing cancer, birth defects, developmental problems, and other chronic effects, and would then give the state environmental agency authority to ban the sale of children's products containing any of them that are found in the bodies of people, or found to contaminate the home, wildlife, or the environment.
We think that this approach of taking action on chemicals that we already know pose these kinds of hazards is the right one. Unfortunately, the approach our laws have typically taken -- an approach that is also advocated by many in the cleaning products industry -- is that we should only take action on chemicals where we risk being exposed at levels that cause harm.
While this may sound reasonable, the problem with this risk-based approach is that it is next to impossible to develop such assessments with a high degree of certainty, particularly when you take into account the synergistic effects of the many chemicals we're exposed to at the same time. Furthermore, not everyone is affected the same way by toxic chemicals. Children, the sick, and the elderly may all be more vulnerable to some exposures, and we're learning that the timing of the exposure can be important too. Exposure to a few parts per billion of an endocrine disruptor during a particular moment during fetal development can have profound impacts, whereas at another time it would have no effect. And of course, the assumption that we can always know all of the routes of exposure that may occur during the manufacture, use, and disposal of a product is very questionable too.
It just makes much more sense to use a hazard-based approach: if you know a chemical poses a hazard, and you know that there is exposure, take preventive and precautionary action and don't use it in the first place.
Evidence of the failure of our laws to protect us was put into sharp focus in a report issued last week by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, our partners in the Million Baby Crawl. The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act summarizes the documented rise in chronic disease over the past several decades and compiles peer reviewed studies estimating the portion attributable to toxic chemicals and the savings in the cost of health care that could be achieved by more effective laws.
Among the striking figures presented in the report are that:
- Rates of leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers have increased by more than 20% since 1975
- Breast cancer rates rose by 40% between '73 and '98, and while they have held steady since 2003, a woman's lifetime risk is 1 in 8, up from 1 in 10 in 1973
- Asthma doubled between 1980 and 1995
- Difficulty conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40% more women in 2002 than 1982, and doubled in younger women ages 18-25
- Autism has increased more than 10-fold in last 15 years
According to the report, estimates of the incidence caused by toxic chemicals range from 1% of all chronic disease to 5% of childhood cancer, to 10% of diabetes, Parkinson's and neurodevelopmental deficits, to 30% of childhood asthma. Even if new laws to limit toxic chemical exposures reduce just 1/10 of 1% of the health care costs associated with these problems, it would save $5B/year nationally.
Seventh Generation Corporate Consciousness