Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

If it’s polluting people, stop it

Would you take an airline that screened baggage for high explosives?


But what if the airline stopped there and didn’t check for firearms, knives, grenades, combustible liquids, ignition devices, caustics and other dangerous devices?  You’d find another way to get there, fast, and you’d also demand a Transportation Security Administration crackdown on every carrier without a security plan based on real-world threat scenarios.

Toxic chemicals, too, pose multiple threats to human health.

That’s why Environmental Working Group is urging Congress to develop a comprehensive plan to give top priority to controlling all substances found to contaminate human bodies, particularly those detected in umbilical cord blood.

EWG made this argument in a letter submitted to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, which held a hearing today (March 4) on crafting a new federal toxic chemicals policy that could curb pollution by persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, known as PBTs.

EWG senior vice-presidents Richard Wiles and Jane Houlihan wrote panel chairman Bobby L. Rush, D-IL, that the federal government should take urgent action to stop the proliferation of PBTs, a class of chemicals that includes mercury, dioxin and certain fire retardant and anti-stain, anti-grease coatings.  Even PBTs not currently recognized as toxic to people, they said, must be presumed unsafe, because  as science progresses and some of these pollutants turn out to affect human health, it will be impossible to purge them from the environment.

But Wiles and Houlihan advised the subcommittee not to focus solely on PBTs, to the exclusion of other chemicals that may pose equal or greater dangers to people, especially during critical windows of development. They wrote:

“EWG has detected nearly 300 chemicals in the cord blood of 20 American newborns. Many of these chemicals are PBTs. But others are not. Among the most troubling substances found in cord blood that are not PBTs are bisphenol A, the synthetic estrogen and plastics component; perchlorate, a thyroid toxin and explosives chemical used in fireworks, airbags and rocket fuel; and phthalates, a class of potent endocrine disruptors linked to birth defects in boys and a common component of soft plastics.”

The EWG letter to the House panel follows:

March 3, 2010

The Honorable Bobby L. Rush
Chairman, Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Subject:      Industrial chemicals in umbilical cord blood – including persistent and bioaccumulative compounds – need urgent action

Dear Chairman Rush:

Thank you for holding this hearing, “TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) and Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemicals: Examining Domestic and International Actions,” and for your continued leadership on reforming the outdated, broken Toxic Substances Control Act.

Among the most notorious and dangerous chemicals ever put into commerce are so-called persistent bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs). This category of pollutants includes DDT, polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the Teflon chemicals perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), brominated flame retardants, lead and mercury compounds and dioxins.

PBTs have been a priority for the environmental community and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the past 40 years.  In fact, a rare and notable success under the current Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been EPA’s program to keep new PBTs off the market through the Pre-manufacture Notification process.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) has long been deeply concerned about PBTs. Our work over the past decade has been instrumental in achieving phase-out agreements for the persistent and bioaccumulative Teflon chemical, PFOA, and the brominated flame retardants, penta, otca and decabromodiphenyl ether (DecaBDE). EWG strongly supports rigorous controls and bans for existing high-risk PBTs and a policy that keeps new PBTs from entering the market.

But PBTs are just one of several categories of chemicals that demand priority action under a reformed national toxic chemicals policy. The broader and more fundamental question before Congress is how to set priorities in a new federal toxic substances law that will deal effectively with the tens of thousands of chemicals used in consumer products and the many hundreds of these already known to contaminate the human body.

Curbing environmental pollution and human exposure to PBTs must be a priority for reform. But elevating PBTs as a class to a super-priority status could delay progress towards much-needed protections from other substances that pose a threat to Americans as great or even greater than that from many PBTs.

Children’s health must be the top priority

The chemicals that deserve highest priority are those that contaminate the blood of babies before they are born. There is an emerging consensus within scientific and medical communities that the most critical chemical exposures occur before birth, when the brain and other organs are exquisitely sensitive to trace changes in blood chemistry. Any substance, PBT or otherwise, that intrudes upon the womb and threatens a child’s normal development must receive our most urgent attention.

EWG has detected nearly 300 chemicals in the cord blood of 20 American newborns. Many of these chemicals are PBTs. But others are not. Among the most troubling substances found in cord blood that are not PBTs are bisphenol A, the synthetic estrogen and plastics component; perchlorate, a thyroid toxin and explosives chemical used in fireworks, airbags and rocket fuel; and phthalates, a class of potent endocrine disruptors linked to birth defects in boys and a common component of soft plastics.

In our view, a chemical’s persistence in the environment or its ability to accumulate in living things should render it of very high regulatory concern. But those two criteria should not be the only factors that elevate a chemical to top priority for regulatory action. The test must be the toxicity, including the endocrine-disrupting properties of each substance, and the intensity of exposure faced by high-risk populations such as pregnant women, their fetuses and newborns.

States move to protect children

The absence of a strong federal chemicals policy has led to numerous state initiatives aiming to protect the public, particularly children, from high-risk chemical exposures. Few national organizations have worked harder than EWG to support states’ efforts to ban or restrict the chemicals of highest concern in consumer products, where such actions were merited.

EWG’s research has helped drive and sustain these efforts, including our 12 studies measuring chemical pollution in 200 people and our analyses of human health risks from exposures to common, toxic consumer product chemicals. EWG experts have testified in support of single chemical bans and broader chemical policy reform legislation in nine states: California, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Pennsylvania, plus the District of Columbia. In California, EWG was the lead sponsor of legislation in 2008 and 2009 to ban BPA in baby bottles and children’s cups.

States have helped pave the way to federal policy reform, but state efforts have not been targeted exclusively or even primarily toward PBTs. Instead, state lawmakers have focused on chemicals that present the greatest risks to children.

In 2009 and 2010, legislation was introduced in 21 states and the District of Columbia to ban BPA (not a PBT) in baby bottles and other children’s products. BPA bans have been signed into law two states – Minnesota and Connecticut – and are awaiting gubernatorial signatures in three states – Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin. At the same time at least three states – Oregon, Washington and Maine – have enacted laws to ban high-risk uses of Deca BDE, a PBT flame retardant. Similar Deca ban bills are pending in 12 more states and the District of Columbia.
Maine and Washington have passed broader legislation designed to protect children from high-hazard chemicals in toys and other products intended for children. One of several criteria for targeting chemicals under these laws is whether or not a chemical is a PBT. Washington also has a program to list PBTs and publish action plans to reduce their use and promote alternatives. Initiated in 2000 by the Department of Ecology, the program has listed 27 PBTs to date and has published action plans for three.

No state has passed legislation banning all PBTs as a group, and no state has passed legislation that singles out PBTs as a higher-priority group of chemicals than those with other hazardous characteristics, such as their ability to cause cancer. The Maine Toxic Chemicals in Children’s Products Act, for example, designates a chemical’s ability to cause cancer, reproductive or developmental harm, or to disrupt the endocrine system along with persistence and bioaccumulation as criteria for being listed as a chemical of high concern (Maine Revised Statutes, Title 38, Chapter 16-D, Sec 1693).  All the criteria are equally important under the law.

Congressional action is needed

This steady stream of state bills reflects strong, broad-based support for chemical policy reform at the national level.  Comprehensive federal reform, like that proposed in the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act of 2008, would protect the health of all Americans, not just those living in a short list of states currently advancing reforms one chemical at a time.

Only action at the federal level can tackle the sheer number of PBTs in use today.  Academic studies estimate that as much as three percent of all chemicals are persistent and bioaccumulative (Howard et al 2010). EPA lists about 140 chemicals as PBTs, among them are lead, mercury and cadmium.

PBTs permeate the economy and reining them in is an extremely complex task that only the federal government can perform.  Of the hundreds of PBTs in use today, some likely present serious health threats.  Others probably do not. The absence of state initiatives banning PBTs is in part due to recognition of this fact, and in part due to the fact that some persistent and bioaccumulative compounds are used in important products where a ban is currently difficult to justify. Mercury is used in all energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. PFOS is critical for airplane brakes, and lead is fabricated into a wide range of products from car batteries to crystal chandeliers.  Although PBTs share characteristics that make them uniquely problematic, it is critical that actions to reduce and eliminate them, first target high-risk uses.

The American people need and deserve a toxic chemicals policy that sets clear and defensible priorities and targets all the high-risk chemicals on the market, not just those with certain characteristics.

The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act introduced in earlier sessions of Congress proposed comprehensive, yet practicable and effective remedies that would give high priority to PBTs. We strongly support those provisions and believe they could be strengthened to require that any persistent and bioaccumulative chemical be presumed unsafe. Industry would then have one year to rebut that presumption and prove that the chemical meets the safety standard of the law, or it would be taken off the market.  This would place PBTs on par with provisions in the bill governing all chemicals found in cord blood, which would also be presumed unsafe until proved otherwise. But it would not grant PBTs elevated status, and it would apply consistent criteria to both priority groups.

We applaud you for holding this hearing, and we thank you for your leadership in efforts to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. We look forward to the introduction of your legislation and working with you to ensure its passage.


Richard Wiles
Senior Vice-President, Policy & Communications

Jane Houlihan
Senior Vice-President for Research

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