Monday, March 15, 2010
Our nation's toxic chemical policy: Time for a little sanity
Op-Ed as published in the Danbury News Times on Sunday, 14 March
I grew up in Danbury, famous for its thriving hat-making industry and notorious for its "Mad Hatters." As anyone growing up in Danbury knows, the hat factories used mercury nitrate to make felt hats, and as a result many workers suffered from mercury poisoning.
Their symptoms included uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, distorted vision, and confused speech.
I always thought it was bizarre that people "back then" would allow such a dangerous substance to be used. I thought the workers were crazy to expose themselves to it.
I didn't understand why people would even buy these hats, knowing that dangerous chemicals were used in their production. What a good thing, I thought, that humankind has come so far.
Or so I thought.
Years later, as a pregnant mom-to-be, I was anxious to provide the safest possible environment for my child. I assumed this would be a fairly straightforward task -- I took recommendations from friends, conducted Internet research, checked labels -- the basics.
I soon learned there was nothing straightforward or basic about it.
BPA in bottles. Phthalates in teethers. Parabens in baby lotions. Hormones in meat. Lead in toys. Questionable plastics in, well, just about everything. And nothing labeled clearly enough to help me make a good decision.
It seemed impossible that these potentially harmful items were being sold to the unknowing public and no one was doing anything about it. I was truly shocked. I still am.
It isn't just our children we need to protect.
Everyone knows someone afflicted with one of the many, many conditions that can be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals -- from cancer and autoimmune disease to allergies and asthma.
In addition to the terror of pediatric cancer and the threat of early puberty, I am spurred on by my family's propensity to autoimmune diseases, ranging from diabetes and allergies to rheumatic conditions.
I'm convinced that controllable factors in our environment greatly increase our risk of these diseases. I don't want my children -- any children -- to experience any of these pains firsthand.
It's like the story of Danbury's poor "Mad Hatters" all over again, but on a grand scale.
So how do we move on to a new era of safer, saner chemicals? It's not as simple as shopping smarter -- or turning down job offers at the hat factory.
Today, we encounter many more toxic chemicals than the "Mad Hatters" did -- chemical production has increased twenty-fold since World War II, which means chemicals are in our air, water, food and everyday household items.
The law intended to protect us from toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), is woefully out of date.
Under TSCA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on only approximately 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market since the law passed in 1976.
Clearly, TSCA is not keeping our families safe. Wouldn't it be great if, in years to come, we could refer back to this insane period of uncontrolled toxic chemical exposure as a sinister story and cautionary tale?
Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, and his colleagues in Congress are doing their best to fix our broken chemical management system -- they are expected to introduce a bill to reform TSCA in the next few months.
Passage of the bill would put common sense limits on toxic chemicals, and issue in a sane new era of chemical safety.
I sincerely hope that my hometown community will work together to support these critically needed reforms.