Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Chemicals Reform Bill a Step Backwards for Children?

You wouldn’t give your child an adult dose of Tylenol. You wouldn’t strap an infant into the front seat of your car. The government won’t let a baby be exposed to the same amount of pesticide a grownup can tolerate. But when it comes to regulating chemicals in children’s toys, bedding or baby bottles, it’s one-size-fits-all. Right now, what’s safe for a 200-pound man is good enough for an infant.

That’s why the proposed House bill to reform the hapless Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires the EPA to protect vulnerable populations (defined as, but not limited to, infants, children and pregnant women) from all chemical exposures.

This would be a seismic improvement over current law, but in a world where environmental laws are revised only once a generation, it may not be good enough,

Why? Because the requirement to protect children is too vague; in fact, it is far less specific than the protections children get under current pesticides law. This absence of specifics is dangerous, because it could be seen (by the courts, among others) as an intentional move by Congress to apply a weaker standard of protection to chemicals in children’s toys than is applied to pesticides.

We at Environmental Working Group do not think this is the intent of the drafters, but intent won’t matter if this problem isn’t fixed.

The core human health safety standard in the House draft is taken directly from the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), with one glaring omission. FQPA requires explicit protection of infants and children from all exposures to pesticides, mandating a “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Then, in a critical additional step for pesticides with a known threshold of toxicity (basically all chemicals that are not carcinogens), the law mandates a ten times higher level of protection for infants and children, to take into account the possibility of pre- and post-natal toxicity and uncertainties in the science.

This last critical provision is missing from the House draft on chemicals regulation reform.

By taking the children’s safety standard directly from FQPA, but then clearly omitting the mandatory FQPA tenfold safety factor for children, it could be argued that Congress does not think that mandatory additional protections for children are needed.

Certainly industry would make exactly this argument if the Environmental Protection Agency were to propose extra protections for children that threatened a big-money chemical. And it is equally likely that a pro-business EPA could see this omission as license to avoid tough restrictions to protect children if the politics of the decision looked tough, or for any reason at all.

The mandatory tenfold safety margin in FQPA has produced tangible improvements in children’s health protections from pesticides. For every single pesticide regulated under this provision, the EPA has to assume that children need ten times more protection than adults, and then justify why this additional protection is not needed if they choose not to apply it. In too many cases, EPA has spent enormous energy trying to evade this requirement. But even so, for scores of pesticides and hundreds of exposures, children are better protected than they otherwise would have been.

With only a vague mandate to protect infants and children, like the provision currently in the House draft, just imagine how weak children’s health protections could be under a President Palin EPA.

We recommend that the draft be revised to include language fully harmonizing TSCA with current requirements for pesticides, taking into account advances in risk assessment outlined recently by the National Academy of Sciences. Meeting these two objectives will ensure that children receive the extra protections that they need — and deserve.

This week’s (May 6) report from the President’s Cancer Panel makes clear that children are at greater risk than adults from cancer-causing chemicals in the environment.

Children can’t protect themselves from these threats. They are counting on us to write a law that gets it done.

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