WASHINGTON, February 26, 2009 -- It is the federal law that industry loves and environmentalists love to hate, yet have been unable to reform since it was enacted a generation ago. But a congressional hearing convened today by Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois may signal the beginning of the end of a federal policy that has made it all but impossible for the government to protect the public health from toxic industrial chemicals. As the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) groundbreaking scientific studies have documented, pollution begins in the womb. EWG laboratory tests have found an average of 200 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborns born in the U.S. in August and September of 2004. “ Toxic industrial chemicals slip past the mother’s placenta just as they have slipped through the Toxic Substances Control Act, and until this law is reformed we’re all defenseless, starting with babies in the womb,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “The late, great environmental attorney and champion Al Meyerhoff used to joke that ‘TSCA’ should stand for “Toxic Substances Conversation Act” because about the only thing it has ever resulted in for thirty years is talk,” Cook added. “Now even the law’s longtime defenders in industry recognize that TSCA must be modernized if public confidence in the safety of chemicals and consumer products is to be restored.”
EWG’s original research on the human body burden, along with body burden testing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and independent scientists, underscores the abject failure of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976 to protect the public from “unreasonable risk” and “imminent danger” from exposures to industrial toxins. “Chairman Rush and members of the subcommittee should be commended for taking action toward overhauling this broken federal law that has allowed the chemical industry to pollute the entire U.S. population,” said Environmental Working Group (EWG) Executive Director Richard Wiles. “The current law is so weak the EPA has tried and failed to ban asbestos – a dangerous and pervasive substance responsible for at least 10,000 deaths a year.” Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, led by chairman Rush (D-IL), convenes a hearing to focus on the failed federal toxics program. The hearing comes as Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) prepares to reintroduce the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, a measure aimed at reforming the 1976 act. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), who sponsored the Kid-Safe bill last year, has indicated that the House version will be reintroduced soon. EWG and other environmental health and consumer organizations are supporting this legislation to reform the myriad of well-documented gaps in current law.
The U.S. faces an epidemic of chronic and childhood diseases that are increasingly linked to the pollution in people. These include asthma, developmental and learning disorders, a decline in fertility, early puberty and childhood cancers. Scientists are still in the early stages of exploring the pathways through which environmental chemicals trigger diseases and disorders. This much is certain: Americans, including infants in the womb, babies and toddlers, are being exposed to a vast array of toxins that have contaminated food, water and household items such as stain-proofed fabric and foam furniture laced with flame retardants. EWG’s benchmark 2004 study, Body Burden — The Pollution in Newborns, found a total of 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns. These included eight perfluorochemicals used as stain and oil repellants in fast food packaging, clothes and textiles — including the Teflon chemical PFOA, which the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board characterized as a likely human carcinogen, dozens of widely used brominated flame retardants and their toxic by-products; and numerous pesticides. Of the chemicals found by EWG lab tests, 180 are believed to cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. In a September 2008 study entitled Teen Girls' Body Burden of Hormone-Altering Cosmetics Chemicals, EWG found 16 chemicals from four chemical families -- phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and musks - in blood and urine samples from 20 teenage girls. Studies indicate that these chemicals, all found in personal care products, can cause a number of potential health problems, including cancer and hormone disruption. Also in September 2008, an EWG study of Fire Retardants in Toddlers and Their Mothers found 11 flame retardants in the bodies of 20 toddlers and preschoolers. The children typically had three times as much of these hormone-disrupting chemicals in their blood as their mothers. Other academic and government biomonitoring projects have documented similarly high levels of dangerous industrial chemicals and pesticides in people’s blood and urine. For example, a team lead by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found bisphenol a, a synthetic estrogen and plastics component that has caused reproductive and neurological system damage in laboratory animals, in 93 percent of Americans over the age of six.
In a pioneering December 2008 study entitled Exposure to Bisphenol A and other Phenols in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Premature Infants, a team of scientists from the CDC, Harvard Medical School, University of Michigan schools of public health and medicine and Rush University Medical Center tested the urine of 41 premature infants being treated in two Boston-area hospital neonatal intensive care units for the presence of BPA and other plastic chemicals. The scientists detected BPA in the urine of every infant, with a median level of 28.6 micrograms per liter, nearly 8 times the median level (3.7 micrograms per liter) found by the CDC in children 6 to 11 in the general population. The most alarming finding: the infant with the most severe exposure to BPA had a total urinary concentration of 946 micrograms per liter, 256 times greater than levels in older children tested by the CDC. The shortcomings of TSCA are well-known. Under the law, the EPA approves an average of 700 new chemicals for commercial use each year with or without safety tests. The agency has required testing for fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in and presumed safe by TSCA and has banned or restricted just five chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental and public health law that has never been modernized and is widely considered to be the weakest.
Last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) included reforming TSCA in its 2009 “high risk” priority list, indicating it is a must-do for the Obama administration. From her first days as EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson has recognized the need for fundamental changes to the program housed within EPA. "It is clear that we are not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace and the environment," Jackson said in a memo to EPA employees on January 23, 2009. "It is now time to revise and strengthen EPA's chemicals management and risk assessment programs." Kid-Safe takes a sound approach to regulating chemicals by prioritizing the review of compounds to which people are exposed, particularly those found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. The legislation would mandate that any chemical found in a baby must meet the absolute strictest standard of safety or be banned. The Kid-Safe bill would require that all science for each chemical tested be publicly available so parents can easily access the information. Not long ago scientists thought that the placenta shielded the developing baby from most chemicals and pollutants in the environment. But EWG’s biomonitoring research shows that at this critical time when organs, vessels, membranes and systems are knit together from single cells to finished form in a span of a few weeks, the umbilical cord not only carries the building blocks of life but also a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides that cross the placenta as readily as residues from cigarettes and alcohol. “No one wants pre-polluted babies, but that is what we get under current law,” said Wiles.
The issue of environmental health has reached a tipping point in the U.S. where the pollution in people is increasingly associated with a range of serious diseases and conditions from childhood cancer, to autism, ADHD, learning deficits, infertility, reproductive disorders and birth defects – all of which are on the rise in this country. Yet even as our knowledge about the link between chemical exposures and human disease grows, the government has almost no authority to protect people from even the most hazardous chemicals on the market. EWG researchers have found 486 industrial toxins in 186 people tested from across the U.S. at all stages of life, from newborns to grandparents. The bill avoids sweeping financial burdens on industry like testing mandates targeting chemicals based on production volume alone because these will (1) not guarantee the public health protections we need; (2) swamp health officials in a sea of data with no assurance that any public health benefit will result, and (3) waste industry money in a recession. “The chemical industry must no longer be allowed to hide behind the veil of secrecy it has successfully used for over 30 years to conceal chemical health and safety data from the public,” Wiles said.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.