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Toxic Chemicals: Neglected Threats to Health and Reproduction

The toothless Toxic Substances Control Act leaves us all at risk for serious illness. Take that plastic water bottle, for example -- no, please, take it.

America's bicentennial year, 1976, was one of phenomenal events and inventions: Apple Inc. was founded; West Point began to admit women; my husband was born; and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our primary chemical safety law, was enacted. In the ensuing 34 years, much has changed. The boxy desktop computer bears almost no resemblance to the recently launched iPad; women are serving valiantly in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and my husband has gone from a pudgy baby to a gray-haired professor.

Unfortunately, despite the introduction of thousands of new chemicals into the products we use every day, TSCA has undergone no revisions. Scientists, health care providers, reproductive and environmental health advocates agree: TSCA has not kept up with the times.

When TSCA was passed in 1976, it was considered a huge step forward in the government's ability to regulate toxic chemicals. To some degree, however, TSCA was already outdated before it was signed into law. Many dangerous chemicals were "grandfathered in" under the new law and remain in use today. Many new chemicals remain unregulated because the legislation was limited in scope.

As a result, one of the primary deficiencies of TSCA is that the chemicals we encounter in our daily lives -- in our water and baby bottles, food containers, children's toys, household cleaners, and personal care products -- are not tested for safety and these chemicals are harming the reproductive health and fertility of women, men and children. Lower-income and communities of color are disproportionately and adversely affected by chemicals in consumer products whether through workplace exposure, specific marketing of niche products, or through products sold in and to their communities. For example, dollar stores, typically located in lower-income communities, are often the last stop for consumer products that can not or will not be sold in other stores. These products, including house wares, toys, jewelry, and food and drink containers, often have been recalled or discontinued. However, these products end up in dollar stores with little regulation or oversight. Likewise, environmental and reproductive justice organizations have long been concerned with the toxic chemicals found in skin lighteners and hair relaxers, products marketed specifically to women of color.

Pregnant women and children are another group among the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals. We know that the short- and long-term effects of early exposure to even low levels of toxic chemicals have been linked to a host of health problems including childhood cancer, early puberty, reduced fertility, and learning and developmental disabilities, including autism and ADHD. Phthalates, for example, a common product found in vinyl, cosmetics, fragrance, and medical devices, has been linked to early puberty, infertility and endometriosis. Although some phthalates have been banned from children's products, they remain poorly regulated under TSCA.

Toxic chemicals can accumulate or build up in our bodies, negatively impacting our health and our future pregnancies long after exposure. Hormone disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals) are one class of chemicals of particular concern because they alter the essential hormone balance required for overall health including the function and regulation of our reproductive health system. Bisphenol A (or BPA) is a widely known hormone disruptor commonly used in plastics products such as water and baby bottles as well as in the lining of canned food, beverages, and infant formula. In 2008, BPA became a household word when news emerged that the popular bottle maker, Nalgene, decided to stop using plastic made with BPA due to growing concern about the negative health impacts of this chemical.

Experience has shown that TSCA does not provide EPA with the regulatory mechanisms necessary to protect public health. The decision by Nalgene, for example, was made voluntarily due to consumer and media pressure. The federal government has not issued any regulations regarding BPA. In addition to phthalates and BPA, there are currently more than 80,000 different chemicals produced and used in the US. In 34 years, EPA has been able to require testing on just 200 of these chemicals and only five have been restricted. In fact, EPA tried to use TSCA to restrict asbestos 18 years ago and failed; they haven't tried since. And why would they? Despite spending tens of millions of dollars and amassing thousands of pages of evidence, the EPA was unable to prove that asbestos presented an “unreasonable risk.” In other words, TSCA's burden of proof is so high that under this legislation not even the worst of the worst chemicals, like asbestos, can be taken off the market.