With Senator Frank Lautenberg's Death, What Happens to His Crucial Fight to Protect Us from Harmful Chemicals?
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The Emerging Science of Chemical Harm
When industry chemists developed Bisphenol A (BPA), they completely overlooked what any bona fide biologist would immediately detect: that the chemical structure of BPA (and certain other synthetic chemicals) closely resembles the chemical structures of estrogen.
But Frederick vom Saal, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri noticed it immediately. Vom Saal has studied hormones and chemicals of concern for over 20 years. He helped to describe the action of BPA and other substances as “endocrine disruptors” that even at miniscule doses interfere with bodily functioning. He found that, when absorbed into the body, the chemical molecules of BPA readily act on hormonal pathways to mimic estrogenic activity. Since excess estrogenic activity is implicated in cancer, this is undesirable. “Using human breast cancer cells, we were studying estrogen chemicals for their potency. And BPA lit up like a Christmas tree. We said, ‘Holy mackerel. What is it that would ever make anybody think this is weak?’” asks vom Saal. Even at infinitesimal doses, harmful changes happen.
However, when government and industry undertake studies, they tend to use an older model of toxicology. Conventional toxicology investigates: At what dose will a substance kill you? But that research fails to account for the low dose responses that vom Saal and a growing body of scientists have identified. The independent academic science vom Saal and his colleagues undertake is less well funded than industry-funded studies. As a result, this new science uses smaller cohorts, such that it’s findings can be more readily dismissed. The solution is better funding for independent research into the effects of low dose chemical exposures. Under TSCA, no safety studies are required until the government can demonstrate significant evidence for harm.
Will the revamped bill, now called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, shift the burden of proof as the original bill did? No, says EWG General Counsel, Thomas Cluderay who compared the new compromise bill with the original Safe Chemicals Act.
First, there is the important question of who will pay for independent assessment. “Missing are provisions allowing the EPA to collect fees from companies to help pay the cost of doing safety reviews on chemicals,” Cluderay notes. “In practice, this will ensure that EPA moves at a glacial pace to review the thousands of chemicals already on the market.” Erase the 85,000 backlog? Not much.
Would the EPA be empowered to regulate chemicals if needed?
In the absence of ample funding for independent research, the new bill would require the EPA to show ““substantial evidence” to justify any restrictions it imposes on chemicals that pose risks to public health and the environment.” Also the new bill would “allow chemical companies to take EPA to court over any safety standard it adopts.” Stalled by industry lawsuits? No change there. That’s been going on since ’76. Most significantly, the new bill fails to deliver on Lautenberg’s key goal— shifting the burden of proof to industry.
What about the use of corporate trade secrecy to bar the public’s right to know?
According to EWG, the new bill gives industry greater protections for “confidential business information” – trade secrets about any potentially harmful ingredients in products ranging from “fragrance” to fracking chemicals.
Then there’s the bad news for physicians treating people exposed to fracking or other highly hazardous chemicals.
“In particular, the bill makes it harder for medical personnel to learn the identity of secret chemicals when treating patients potentially exposed to those substances.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because this industry protective provision is in synch with ALEC-model bills like Pennsylvania’s reviled Act 13, which sought to prohibit physicians from disclosing chemicals to patients which were revealed by testing in their blood. (It was overturned as unconstitutional by the PA Supreme Court.)