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EWG asks HHS nominee Tom Daschle: what about toxics?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Topic A at the Senate confirmation hearing for Health and Human secretary nominee Tom Daschle was health reform. Also Topics B through Y. That's understandable: this country's health crisis is monumental. Fixing it has to be a top priority of the Obama administration.

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But we also want to know how Secretary-designate Daschle will confront the challenges of preventing illness and safeguarding public health by reducing exposures to chemical contaminants in food, water and the environment.

We were glad to hear the former South Dakota senator say that as a general proposition, "I want to reinstate a science-driven environment. I want to take ideology and politics, as much as humanly possible, out of the process and leave the scientists to do their job."

That's good news, because over the past two years, two separate congressional investigations have uncovered conflicts of interest among contractors hired by the National Institutes of Health, particularly the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program to assess the risk of chemicals in the environment. In some instances, contractors were also working for industries with direct financial interest in regulatory decisions.

As well, FDA advisory committees and other outside advisory panels have become heavily influenced by scientists with financial and business ties to the industries being regulated. We hope to hear exactly how Secretary-designate Daschle will address this issue.

We hope Daschle will press the federal Food and Drug Administration to consider all the science available as it decides how to protect people, especially children, from bisphenol A, a plastics component and toxic sex hormone, and other chemical contaminants in food, personal care products and medical devices. The Bush administration practice of giving weight only to industry-sponsored studies must stop, now.

As well, it makes sense for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand its biomonitoring program, which measures human body burdens of industrial chemicals. The program tests people six years of age and older -- and so far, its findings have been chilling. It hasn't measured chemicals present in the blood and urine of the fetus and infants -- the most vulnerable members of society, who are most likely to be damaged by exposure to dangerous substances. EWG's studies of cord blood show that some chemicals are reaching infants in the womb and that babies are being born pre-polluted. We need much more extensive research on exposure to chemicals and their impact at crucial stages of development.

We hope to hear soon what steps Daschle will take to investigate the extent to which babies and small children have industrial chemicals in their bodies and to regulate these chemicals to ensure our kids are safe.