When many of us were kids, somebody thought it was a good idea to put a flame retardant called chlorinated tris in our pajamas. Then, environmental science sounded a health warning and the substance disappeared from new pajamas. A few decades later, scientists discovered chlorinated tris, by now identified as a "known carcinogen" or cancer-causing substance, in the cushions of our couches. As manufacturers use different versions of flame retardants in our couches and even in baby products, scientists warn of more serious health risks and the Environmental Protection Agency is only recently examining some of these substances for safety.
When you and I choose a product off a store shelf, we don't have a right, under current law, to know everything that went into making it. A trade secret gives the chemical manufacturer more protection for its profits than it gives us for health and safety. Take the word "fragrance." Scientists are telling us that usually means we're getting a synthetically made scent that could disrupt our body's endocrine system, weaken our immunity, and increase our risk of breast cancer. While sometimes we're tipped off about a toxic trade secret by a term like "fragrance," there can also be no mention on the label at all. Efforts have been underway to remove 1,4 dioxane from the process of making many of our shampoos and detergents sudsy. This is because 1,4 dioxane, which you won't find printed on the label, has been suspected of causing cancer and birth defects.
If all of this sounds confusing, that's because it is a reflection of how complex, out-of-control, and consumer unfriendly the system is today. A 1970s rule called the Toxic Substances Control Act was supposed to protect us, but somehow it doesn't. Meanwhile, modern science has been proving that we all carry a toxic body burden that includes substances linked to all sorts of health problems. Our babies are born with prenatal exposure to hundreds of toxins, even if we did everything our obstetrician told us to. That brings us to the Safe Chemicals Act. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a grandfather who cares about kids, has been championing the measure that's supposed to update TSCA, get rid of the worst chemicals of concern, and get the entire process of testing, allowing and labeling various chemicals, up-to-speed with modern science.
The Safe Chemicals Act is based on sound science by leaders like Dr. Theo Colborn, a grandmother herself, who founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange
. In her 2012 letter appealing to President Obama to do something about this, she cautioned, "There is no safe level of exposure to many of these chemicals." Colborn talks eloquently about the womb as a child's first environment. Leading physicians appointed by President George W. Bush to the President's Cancer Panel also urged in their 2008-2009 report, "With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action...The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation's productivity, and devastate American lives."
And so, the appeals continue, for a bipartisan, moderate, common sense reform to give consumers the peace of mind we deserve about toxic chemicals. Although Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act contains real reforms to help the American people, there are rumblings
about a pseudo-Safe Chemicals Act that might use some soothing language to make us think we're better off than we are. Many physicians, nurses, scientists, learning disabilities advocates, grandparents and parents advocate for the original Safe Chemicals Act because it's about substantive reform. You might want to ask your US Senator to clarify which version he or she is supporting.