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Environmental connections to public health >>

EWG’s Top Ten Environmental Health Stories of 2013

Monday, January 27, 2014

When EWG’s staff voted on the most important environmental health stories of 2013 that didn’t directly involve agriculture, it turned out that antibiotic overuse was at the top of the list. Of course, that issue does involve agriculture. Oh, well.

In fact, three of the year’s biggest stories cited by EWG’ers focused on antibiotic overuse and the resulting rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to make many vital bacteria-fighting medicines useless. EWG’s Top Ten:

1. After more than a decade of complaints about industrial agriculture’s indiscriminate use of antibiotics to speed the growth of healthy livestock and prevent disease among overcrowded animals, the Food and Drug Administration issued a limited, voluntary plan in December. The reaction was mixed: some observers praised the agency for finally taking action, while others said – too little, too late. Either way, EWG’s staff thought FDA’s action was significant enough to make it the top environmental health story of the year.

2. For years, EWG has pressed Congress in vain to update and strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act, the ineffective 1976 law that’s supposed to protect the public from toxic chemicals. When the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a longtime environmental champion, unexpectedly teamed with Sen. David Vitter, R.-La., to introduce a bipartisan proposal touted as “reform,” there was a flicker of hope that lawmakers might actually get something done – until EWG took a closer look. Ultimately, EWG President Ken Cook testified before a Senate committee that the so-called Chemical Safety Improvement Act would be even worse than the original law, and before long opposition to the proposal was deep and wide.

3. EWG drew attention to proliferating antibiotic resistant “superbugs” in April when it dug up unpublicized federal data showing that a startlingly high percentage of the meat being sold in American supermarkets was contaminated with potentially dangerous pathogens immune to common antibiotics. The startling findings were widely reported in mainstream media.

4. In November, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that the state would revise controversial fire safety regulations that had led manufacturers to add huge amounts of toxic fire retardants to furniture and other consumer products. EWG had been investigating the toxicity of flame retardant chemicals for 10 years, and a powerful 2012 series by The Chicago Tribune helped build momentum for a change in the market-driving California regulation.

5. In the nation’s capital, the Federal Communications Commission finally heeded calls from EWG and others to take a fresh look at cell phone radiation standards it hadn’t touched since 1996, a span when cell phones went from an expensive novelty to a staple of daily life for adults and children alike. The scientific jury is still out on whether cell phone radiation poses a meaningful health risk, but there is plenty of reason to take the question seriously, and EWG offers practical advice on how to minimize your exposure.

6 & 7. Two major American companies – Procter and Gamble and Walmart – took steps last year to reduce their customers’ exposure to toxic substances in products they make or sell. P&G, whose brands include Cover Girl, Olay, Old Spice, Tide, Febreze and Mr. Clean, announced it would phase out phthalates and triclosan from its goods. Soon afterward, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, said it would require its suppliers to limit or eliminate some chemicals from the products it sells, 

8. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t mince words when it called for national action to confront the threat of drug-resistant “nightmare bacteria.” There was widespread media coverage of the announcement, and EWG staff agreed that this was the third antibiotic resistance story that deserved to be on our Top Ten list.

9. In September, two prestigious medical organizations – the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine – said in a joint statement that “toxic chemicals in our environment harm our ability to reproduce, negatively affect pregnancies and are associated with numerous long-term health problems.” That drew a condescending response from the American Chemistry Council, the leading industry group, which in turn prompted EWG Executive Director Heather White to pen this blistering commentary.

10. Despite the stiff criticism that greeted the chemical regulation “reform” that Sen. Lautenberg co-sponsored with Sen. Vitter not long before the New Jersey Democrat died, Lautenberg’s long record of environmental advocacy in Congress made his passing an important – and sad – story. EWG President Ken Cook was one of many who took note of Lautenberg’s three decades of efforts to protect the public from toxic chemicals



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