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Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

Acclaimed ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber discusses the need for meaningful reform of toxics regulation and why extreme energy extraction must end.

Photo Credit: © Vadim Petrakov/ Shutterstock.com


The following interview is from Earthjustice's Down to Earth audio program. You can listen to the show here.

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Sandra Steingraber is an acclaimed ecologist and author of the new book, Raising Elijah, which takes a personal yet scientific look at the abundant human exposure to toxic chemicals. She believes that we can both reform toxics regulation and stop climate change by getting off of dirty fossil fuels.

Sandra spoke with Kari Birdseye, national press secretary at Earthjustice in November of 2012.

Kari Birdseye: Sandra Steingraber, welcome to  Down to Earth . As a parent, I want to thank you for writing  Raising Elijah.

Sandra Steingraber: Thanks for having me.

Kari: You've been called the new Rachel Carson and a poet with a knife. In 1962, Carson wrote  Silent Spring, which has been credited for helping to  spark the modern environmental movement with its warnings of the dangers of pesticides. Fifty years later, the dangers of toxic chemicals, and particularly their health effects on kids, is still an issue and one that you address in your book,  Raising Elijah. Why are there dangerous chemicals still on the market? What is broken and how can we fix it?

Sandra: Well, of all of the transformational laws that came as a result of Silent Spring , mostly in the '70s—Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, all of this sort of great legislation around the environment—the weakest one of all is the one governing the production and use of toxic chemicals, so-called TSCA—the  Toxic Substances Control Act. And from the beginning this law was really set up to fail. It was structured very badly in that it represented the government's first attempt to get a handle on the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals that had come on the market since World War II without any requirement for advanced testing for safety as a pre-condition for marketing.

And instead of doing the right thing, which would have been to say that the burden of proof for demonstration of safety belongs to industry and that as a pre-condition for introducing these things safety was a required result of careful testing, instead, the law gave a pass to this inventory of 65,000 chemicals already on the marketplace and then required some very low bars for testing any new chemicals. So you can see right away that is a disincentive to innovation in chemistry because it's always going to be easier for the industry to fall back on that inventory of 65,000 old chemicals for which they don't need to show anything at all. And at the same time, it blinds those of us in the scientific community from even being able to know what the effects are for people's exposures because we don't have basic toxicology data. And so really, it's this law—the Toxic Substances Control Act—that is at the heart of our broken chemical regulatory system and is placing children in harm's way.

TSCA doesn't require chemical makers to prove the tens of thousands of chemicals made in the U.S. are safe before they end up in items like cleaning products and food packaging.

So [there's a] disconnect between what we know in the scientific community about the effects of these chemicals, and some of them actually now are classified as developmental toxicants, meaning that they have the ability to alter pathways of development, having life-long consequences for health. All that new science keeps piling up, and yet there's nothing in the regulatory system that is required to respond to that, so that the difference between our law and what we know in science grows greater and greater.

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